Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Rave Parties

Guide No.14 (2002)

by Michael S. Scott

The Problem of Rave Parties

This guide addresses problems associated with rave parties. Rave parties—or, more simply, raves—are dance parties that feature fast-paced, repetitive electronic music and accompanying light shows. Raves are the focus of rave culture, a youth-oriented subculture that blends music, art and social ideals (e.g., peace, love, unity, respect, tolerance, happiness). Rave culture also entails the use of a range of licit and illicit drugs. Drug use is intended to enhance ravers' sensations and boost their energy so they can dance for long periods.

Rave party problems will be familiar to many police officers working in communities where raves have been held; they will be unfamiliar to many other officers who have never experienced raves or, perhaps, even heard of them. In many jurisdictions, the first time a young person dies while or after attending a rave and using rave-related drugs sparks media, public and political pressure on police to take action.1

In some respects, rave party problems are unique; they combine a particular blend of attitudes, drugs and behavior not found in other forms of youth culture. In other respects, rave party problems are but the latest variation in an ongoing history of problems associated with youth entertainment, experimentation, rebellion, and self-discovery.2

Dealing appropriately with raves is difficult for police. On the one hand, police often face substantial pressure from mainstream society to put an end to raves, usually through aggressive law enforcement. On the other hand, raves are enormously popular among a significant minority of teenagers and young adults, most of whom are generally law abiding and responsible. Strict enforcement efforts can alienate a key segment of this population from government in general, and the police in particular. To be sure, raves can pose genuine risks, but those risks are frequently exaggerated in the public's mind. It is important that police recognize that most rave-related harms happen to the ravers themselves, and while ravers are not wholly responsible for those harms, they willingly assume much of the risk for them. Accordingly, rave party problems are at least as much public health problems as they are crime and disorder problems. It is critical that you establish a solid base of facts about rave-related harms in your community, facts from which you can intelligently develop local policies and responses.

The principal rave-related concerns for police are:

  • drug overdoses and associated medical hazards;
  • drug trafficking and the potential for violence associated with it;
  • noise (from rave music, crowds and traffic);
  • driving under the influence; and
  • traffic control and parking congestion.

Related Problems

Rave party problems are only one set of problems relating to youth, large crowds and illegal drugs, problems police are partially responsible for addressing. Other problems not directly addressed in this guide include:

  • problems associated with crowds at music clubs (e.g., hiphop clubs), and at concerts and other big events;
  • assaults in and around bars;
  • thefts of and from cars in parking facilities;
  • disorderly youth in public places;
  • graffiti;
  • street-level drug dealing;
  • clandestine drug labs;
  • high-level trafficking in rave-related drugs; and
  • use of illicit drugs in acquaintance rape.

Factors Contributing to Rave Party Problems

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Rave Culture and the Rave Scene

Although only a little more than a decade old, rave culture and the rave scene have evolved into different forms, with variations in music styles, settings, drugs used, and ravers' ages. The rave scene is variously referred to in the literature as the "club scene" or "dance scene" (and the drugs variously referred to as "rave drugs," "club drugs" or "dance drugs"). Here we provide only a brief and general history and description of rave culture and the rave scene; the culture and scene may vary somewhat from community to community.

† For descriptions of the history and evolution of rave culture, see Measham, Parker and Aldridge (1998); Presdee (2000); Van de Wijngaart et al. (1999); Morel (1999); Critcher (2000); Farley (2000); and National Drug Intelligence Center (2001). [Full text]

Raves emerged in U.K. youth culture in the late 1980s, having started amidst the party atmosphere of Ibiza, a Mediterranean island frequented by British youth on vacation.3 Rave music originated in the United States, mainly in Detroit, Chicago and New York. 4, The rave scene soon spread to other European and North American countries, to Australia, to New Zealand, and elsewhere around the world. Raves, especially those held in large clubs, have been prominent in such North American cities as Toronto, Dallas, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Tampa and Orlando, Fla.; and in British cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and London.5

† Among the variations of rave music styles are those known as house (or garage), acid house, ambient, hardcore, happy hardcore, techno, trance, progressive trance, cybertrance, drum 'n' bass, techstep, big beat, and jungle music.

Raves vary in size: some draw a few hundred people, while others draw tens of thousands. Raves are commonly advertised in flyers distributed in clubs and music stores, and on Internet websites. Oftentimes, the flyer or website lists only the city, the date, the rave title, and a telephone number. Those who call the number are given directions to the rave or to another location where they can find out where the rave is.

Raves usually start late at night and continue into the morning. A well-known disk jockey is often the rave's main attraction. Ravers often wear or carry glow sticks or other brightly lit accessories, and eat lollipops and candy necklaces. Some wear painters' masks with mentholated vapor rub applied to the inside to enhance ecstasy's effects.

Rave culture has become increasingly commercialized since its early days, and today accounts for a large part of the youth entertainment industry.6 Regular ravers spend around $50 to $75 (£35 to £50) a week just on admission, drugs and drinks.7 So-called "energy drinks" (nonalcoholic beverages laced with amino acids) are often heavily marketed at rave clubs. Bottled water is also prevalent at raves—ravers drink a lot of water to try to keep their bodies hydrated and their body temperatures down. Selling bottled water at raves can be highly profitable. There are large profits to be made selling anything associated with raves, from clothing to accessories to beverages.

In the early years, most raves were unlicensed, unregulated events held in clandestine locations—usually in remote sites like open fields, caves or tunnels, and sometimes indoors in empty warehouses, airplane hangars or barns. Rave locations were kept secret until the day of the event: ticket holders called special telephone numbers to learn where to go. Largely due to police crackdowns on these unlicensed and unregulated clandestine raves, the rave scene moved to large clubs in urban and suburban areas.

† Outdoor raves have effectively been banned entirely in the United Kingdom under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, a national law passed specifically in response to raves (Presdee 2000; Shapiro 1999). The law gives police broad powers to detain people traveling to raves, seize electronic equipment and shut raves down, powers that would likely be seen as overbroad in the United States.

Raves predictably attract a young crowd—as young as 13 at unlicensed raves, but more typically in the 17-to-early-20s range in licensed clubs.†† Younger ravers are sometimes called "candy ravers": they are more likely to wear costumes. Ravers come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, though most are white.8 Most are employed, which is not surprising given the costs of regular rave attendance.9 Slightly more males than females attend raves.10 Different clubs that promote different types of rave music attract different races and sexual orientations. Regular ravers appear to derive great pleasure from their involvement in the rave scene, and are committed to it in spite of the risks and costs.11

†† Ravers' ages depend partly on local laws regulating the ages at which people can be admitted to clubs.

Rave-Related Drugs

Although ravers might use any number of legal and illegal drugs, certain drugs are most commonly associated with the rave scene. Among them are:
  • ecstasy (or MDMA),

    † MDMA is only one of perhaps over 200 analogues to the chemical MDA (3,4 - methylenedioxyamphetamine) (Spruit 1999).

  • Ketamine,††

    †† Because Ketamine is used as a veterinary anesthetic, trafficking in it is often connected to burglaries of veterinary clinics and pharmacies (U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy 2001) [Full text].

  • LSD (or "acid"),
  • Rohypnol, and
  • GHB (see Appendix B for more information on these drugs).

Ravers also use amphetamines, methamphetamine, cannabis, alcohol, and cocaine, but such use transcends involvement in the rave culture. Crack and heroin are not yet prominent in rave culture, but heroin use appears to be increasing among ravers in some jurisdictions.12

Other drugs associated with rave culture include:

  • MDEA (or "Eve") (3,4-methylenedioxyethylamphetamine);
  • MMDA (3-methoxy-4,5-methylenediosya mphetamine);
  • PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine);†††

    ††† PMA has been connected with several deaths in recent years in the United States, Canada and Australia (DanceSafe 2001 [Full text]; National Institute on Drug Abuse 2001) [Full text].

  • fentanyl;
  • PCP (or "angel dust") (phencyclidine);
  • psilocybin (or "magic mushrooms");
  • methaqualone;
  • DMT (dimethyltryptamine);
  • over-the-counter drugs such as pseudoephedrine, ephedra, caffeine, menthol inhalants, and vaporizing ointments;
  • prescription drugs such as Viagra, Prozac and DXM (dextromethorphan, a cough elixir); and
  • legal substances such as nitrous oxide (or "laughing gas" or" whippets").

Drug use patterns can vary significantly across regions and countries, so while one drug might be popular in one jurisdiction, it might be unknown in others.13 Because most of the drugs are illegal and therefore not subject to quality control, users do not necessarily know exactly what chemicals they are ingesting.

Ecstasy is the drug most closely associated with the rave scene, and an increasingly popular one.14 Drug control officials are concerned that its use has spread from the smaller rave culture to the mainstream youth culture, as drug use becomes increasingly normalized among the current generation.15 Ecstasy use has been expanding from primarily white, middleclass, suburban youth to minority and urban youth.16

Two of ecstasy's common side effects are jaw-clenching and teeth-grinding. Ecstasy users at raves often suck on baby pacifiers to cope with these effects. Ecstasy users typically take one to two tablets per rave session.17 Because many raverelated drugs are manufactured illegally, users cannot be sure of the exact chemical contents of what they take. What is sold as ecstasy, for example, may actually be a different drug, or a mixture of ecstasy and other active drugs or adulterants.18 Traditionally, alcohol has not been associated with the rave scene because many ravers have felt it promotes aggression and undermines the peace ideal at raves.19 But as the rave scene has moved to licensed clubs, and as alcohol distributors have sought to profit from rave culture, alcohol has become more heavily used at raves, and more heavily marketed to appeal to the rave audience.20 Alcohol can alter the effects of other drugs taken, in unpredictable and dangerous ways.

As noted, heroin and crack use is also less common among ravers, although about one-fifth to one-third of ravers have tried heroin.21

While it is true that not everyone who attends raves uses illegal drugs, and not everyone who uses illegal drugs attends raves, there is substantial evidence that rave attendance and certain patterns of drug use are closely linked.22 People who attend raves tend to have more drug experience than those who do not, and people who use the drugs associated with raves are more likely to attend raves.23

Harms Caused by Rave-Related Drugs and Raves

The use of rave-related drugs has not been strongly linked to other crimes, as has been the case with other drugs such as cocaine and heroin.24 And unlike other youth events or other types of concerts, raves do not typically involve much assault.25 The few reports of rave-related violence are usually attributable to clashes between ravers and police when police try to shut raves down.26 Even these confrontations are rare. There has been some violence in British clubs where organized drug gangs have tried to control the drug distribution and private security markets.27 At raves to which most people have traveled by car, there will also likely be problems such as thefts from and of cars, vandalism and graffiti, but these problems are not unique to raves.

There are some concerns that people who take certain raverelated drugs are more vulnerable to sexual assault, but there is little published literature indicating that rave-related sexual assaults are prevalent. In fact, the evidence of rave-related drugs' effects on sexual activity is mixed: rave culture discourages sexual aggressiveness, and while some drugs do lower sexual inhibitions, they also can inhibit sexual performance. So in some respects, raves are safer places for young people, especially women, than conventional bars and clubs.28

† Some scholars have noted that warnings about young women's sexual vulnerability are frequently connected to emerging drug use, to generate public support for official crackdowns (Rietveld 1993; Jenkins 1999).

As a whole, those ravers who use rave-related drugs seem to manage their drug use, not letting it seriously disrupt other facets of their lives—work, school and personal relationships29 —although this is clearly not the case for all ravers.30 Few rave related drug users get seriously addicted to the drugs, and few turn to crime to finance their drug use.31 To the extent that regular rave attendance and rave-related drug use do create other life-management problems, those problems tend to be worse for younger and female ravers, and for those who use combinations or excessive doses of drugs.32

Common unpleasant aftereffects of rave attendance include fatigue, insomnia, exhaustion, muscle aches, numbness, profuse sweating, listlessness, depression, amnesia, paranoia, and excessive mood swings.33 Some people also experience anxiety or panic attacks, blurred vision, dizziness, appetite and weight problems, nausea, headaches, stomach pains, vomiting, skin problems, irregular menstrual periods, and passing out. These effects are undoubtedly caused by a combination of overexertion and drug use. Some ravers try to medicate themselves to manage the aftereffects of drug use.34 The long-term effects of some of the drugs are not yet fully understood, but there is evidence that chronic ecstasy use can cause permanent brain damage.35

Most of the deaths that have been linked to raves have been caused not by the toxicity of the drugs per se, but by the effects they have on key bodily functions.36 Many deaths are attributed to the users' bodies overheating (hyperthermia), dehydrating or losing blood sodium (hyponatraemia). These effects occur because some drugs, ecstasy in particular, inhibit the body's temperature-regulating mechanisms, and body temperatures can rise to fatal levels. This effect is compounded by users' overexertion through dancing and by the loss of bodily fluids from sweating or vomiting. Many ecstasy users drink a lot of water to prevent dehydration, but unless they are dancing and sweating, drinking too much water can prove equally dangerous because it can cause kidney failure. Ecstasy use can impair the kidneys' capacity to produce urine.37 Several studies of ecstasy users reveal that many of them only vaguely understand the risks of hyperthermia and hyponatraemia, and how to prevent them.38

While rave-related drug deaths are, of course, tragic, and taking rave-related drugs increases the risk of death or serious illness, deaths and medical emergencies remain relatively rare.39 Rave-related drugs are not yet showing up in large numbers in emergency room mentions, but they are increasingly being noted.40 Some deaths and medical emergencies can be attributed to users' ingesting a combination of drugs or a combination of drugs and alcohol (referred to as potentiation effects).41 Yet others can be attributed to users' allergic reactions or hypersensitivity to rave-related drugs, or to the drugs' triggering some other preexisting medical condition.42 Treatment is sometimes complicated because users often do not know exactly what chemicals they have ingested, or they have ingested combinations of chemicals.

† Tests in the Netherlands and Canada of drugs that users believed to be ecstasy revealed that only about one-fourth to one-third of the drugs actually contained MDMA (Spruit 1999; Royal Canadian Mounted Police 2000). [Full text]

Rave-Related Drug Trafficking

Although this guide does not directly address large-scale trafficking in rave-related drugs, a few points about drug dealing at raves are in order. Most ravers obtain and use illegal drugs before arriving at the venue.43 This is so for several reasons:

  • as rave operators increasingly search ravers for drugs upon entry, drug users avoid having their drugs confiscated by taking them before they arrive;
  • some rave-related drugs take an hour or more to take effect, so users want them to be working when they get to the venue; and
  • experienced drug users prefer to get drugs from a dealer they know and trust, rather than risk getting bad drugs from an unknown dealer at a venue (where they will also probably pay more).

So while some drug dealing does occur at rave venues, they are not the predominant location for rave-related drug distribution. A considerable amount of drug dealing may occur in the area around the rave venue, particularly if rave operators are effective at keeping drug dealers and drugs out of the venue. One of the potential unintended consequences of searching ravers for drugs upon entry is that it encourages some ravers to take large doses of drugs before they arrive, to prolong the effects throughout the rave.44

Drug dealing operations in clubs can be elaborate, with different people playing different roles: primary dealer, floor dealer, referrer, spotter/protector.45 To varying degrees, rave operators, disk jockeys and security staff are sometimes involved in drug trafficking. Their involvement may range from turning a blind eye to it (sometimes because they are intimidated by dealers), to taking payments from dealers to allow dealing, to actually dealing themselves.46

Environmental Risk Factors at Raves

Certain environmental conditions common to raves create health and safety risks for ravers. Chief among them are heat, humidity and loud music. The heat and humidity are generated by large crowds of people whose body temperatures rise due to strenuous dancing and the chemical effects of some rave-related drugs. Where heat and humidity are not compensated for through good ventilation, air conditioning and ready access to cool drinking water, the risks are compounded. Prolonged exposure to loud music can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss: sound levels at many raves average around 135 decibels, well above the level that can cause hearing loss.47