At 2:30AM on August 31, 2013, Dede Goldsmith got the phone call that every parent dreads. Her 19-year-old daughter Shelley was in the hospital. Shelley had taken some MDMA at a Dada Life show in a Washington D.C. nightclub. After dancing for hours in the hot, crowded room, she suffered a heat stroke and collapsed on her way to buy a bottle of water. She died before the Goldsmiths could get to the hospital.
Dede Goldmith believes that her daughter's death could have been avoided. In September 2014, she launched a campaign to amend a federal law called the Rave Act, which she believes is outdated, dangerous, and inadvertently killing young people around the country. As the two-year anniversary of Shelley's death approaches, Goldsmith is still fighting tirelessly to bring awareness to this issue.
The Rave Act was passed in 2003 by then-Delaware Senator Joe Biden, who remarked that "most raves are havens for illicit drugs." Originally called the Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act (RAVE), it was later changed to the Illicit Drugs Anti-Proliferation Act, but the name stuck.
The legislation expands upon earlier "crack house" laws, allowing authorities to crack down events that "knowingly and intentionally" encourage drug use. Basically, it gives law enforcement more power to shut down raves and prosecute promoters—which they did throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
Acting on their lawyers' advice, dance event organizers stopped providing services that could be construed as a tacit admission of drug use, such as cool-down rooms, free water, and drug testing from harm-reduction organizations like DanceSafe. Of course, these are the same measures that help keep partygoers safe.
"Shelley wasn't given any opportunity to learn about the dangers of dancing in a crowded environment, dehydration, all the things to be wary of," Goldsmith tells THUMP. "The only way to do that is to provide peer-to-peer education. My daughter died as a result of this law."
Goldsmith and her husband decided to launch a campaign called "Amend the Rave Act," but change has been slow. An online petition has so far gathered just over 7,000 signatures at the time this post was written. Goldsmith says she's not focusing on legislative strategy for now, instead keeping her efforts as broad as possible, in hopes to get support from groups like the Rotary Club.
"It's a non-partisan, public-safety issue and we're all affected by it," she says. "What we're talking about is events with hundreds of thousands of participants. Their kids deserve to be protected."
The Rave Act continues to have far-reaching effects on today's dance music culture. After two MDMA-related deaths, Diplo's Mad Decent party banned rave staples including pacifiers, stuffed animals, massagers and kandi bracelets. Diplo told angry patrons: "This is just a simple set of rules we are using to make things safer."
Similarly, after a drug death threatened to boot Ultra from its home in Miami, the festival prohibited a long list of items including glow sticks, stuffed animals, and face masks. In both cases, it was clear that organizers were worried that these neon-colored accessories could be used as signs of encouraging drug use.
Both Ultra and Mad Decent are among the many dance festivals across the country that do not allow harm-reduction groups like DanceSafe onto their premises. DanceSafe provides free drug testing and education to festivalgoers as a harm-reduction tactic. Goldsmith firmly believes that these groups have a place at dance events.
"It is wrong to believe that harm and risk reduction measures encourage drug use," she said in an interview with DanceSafe. "Rather, they protect our youth, many of whom are at an age where experimentation with alcohol and drugs is a part of the culture."
"These are common sense safety precautions that will protect everyone. Heat stroke can happen at EDM events even when someone hasn't taken any drugs," she added.
Other advocates for harm-reduction are in agreement with Goldsmith. "The politicians and media want to make you accountable for keeping drugs out of the venue altogether, although they know it's not possible," Daniel Raymond, policy director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, told me last year. "The crackdown approach only exacerbates the likelihood of an overdose."
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So far, Goldsmith has won the support of a broad coalition of drug-safety advocacy groups. But so far, they've limited themselves to "answering technical questions" and "trying to engage the base," says Stefanie Jones, nightlife community engagement manager at the Drug Policy Alliance. "I'm delighted they are supporting my efforts, and I hope they will activate their networks when the time comes." Goldsmith says. "But this is my mission and my husband's mission.
Goldsmith was also able to score a meeting with Virginia Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine. "We did not go to him with a specific amendment," she says. "We went to say, 'We need your help.' His aide and I talk every week." She also has met with a key figure in amending the law, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, whose district is adjacent to her own.
Everyone involved knows amending the Rave Act won't be easy.
"There's a sense that the 'War on Drugs' is a failure," notes Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority. "But polls show people are not in favor of legalizing other drugs." It's a mistake to argue such drugs aren't unsafe, "because they are," he adds. That's why the emphasis needs to be on harm reduction.
A recent directive from the U.S. Department of Justice may provide hope, that Goldsmith's efforts may pay off down the road. The federal government is training law enforcement in how to administer an antidote to heroin overdoses. "It's obviously illegal to possess heroin, but that doesn't mean people should pay with their life," Kreit notes. "A change in the Rave Act would be consistent with that."
Interestingly, less than a month after Goldsmith's campaign began, in Britain, Anne-Marie Cockburn, a British mother whose own daughter died after doing ecstasy, launched "Anyone's Child Families for Safer Drug Control" to "put a human face on the costs of the war on drugs."
"Putting a human face on the unseen effect of not having harm reduction and medical services is a potential game changer," Kreit says. "Goldsmith can describe this in a compelling way. That's why she's potentially a game changer."
*A previous version of this article stated that Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine is a member of the GOP. He is a Democrat. We regret the error.