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Concert-drug law gets booed

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Good concerts. One bad act.

That's the message from Utah's concert promoters and venue operators concerning The Illicit Drug and Anti-Proliferation Act and the effect it may have on the industry.

From June 1 to August 31 more than 100 bands, groups and solo artists will play in-state venues. For those in the concert business, summer is the well that fills the camel's hump.

But concert promoters and venue operators are concerned their cash hump may be sucked dry if policing agencies enforce this portion of the AMBER Alert.

The drug act, amended to the legislation at the last minute, could hold promoters and owners criminally liable for their patrons' illegal drug use.

A criminal conviction under the law carries a maximum 20-year jail sentence, as well as a $250,000 fine. For larger-grossing events, the financial penalty can be as much as double the projected or estimated profits.

Promoters and venue owners are concerned they may be targeted. The steep penalties — and large legal fees needed to fight the charges — could severely cripple even the largest companies and annihilate smaller clubs and promoters, promoters say.

The American Civil Liberties Union and promoter organizations have spoken against the act because it holds the owners and promoters responsible for people's personal behavior.

"We already do everything we can to stop drugs and weapons from coming in," said Dave McKay, vice president of United Concerts, the state's largest events promotion company.

Long-standing laws require concert promoters and venue owners to provide a safe environment for their guests. It's become industry protocol for event security guards or "crowd managers" to search the bags and bodies of attendees for drugs and weapons when patrons enter the venue.

"We search, but it is hard to catch everything all the time," McKay said.

If that's a confession to knowing drugs sometimes get into concerts, it could be enough to get United Concerts prosecuted under the new act.

The bill's key word seems to be "knowingly."

It states that promoters and venue owners have to know drugs are being used, sold or distributed at their concerts to be held criminally liable.

"A high school principal would have to be ignorant not to know drugs are being sold and distributed at school. Are they going to be fined $250,000 for every drug deal that happens under their nose?" asked Tom Taylor, owner of Bricks, a Salt Lake night club.

ACLU lawyer Marvin Johnson had the same problem with the bill.

"You could have hotels prosecuted, you could have sporting events prosecuted — basically anything or anywhere you could expect someone to try and use drugs," Johnson told the Associated Press.

Taylor is concerned Bricks, with the largest club-style concert venue capacity along the Wasatch Front, could be targeted if police wanted to close down his business.

Representatives from other concert venues like the State Fairgrounds, Delta Center, E Center and other clubs also expressed concern over the law and hope it is clarified within the next year.

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, said club owners and promoters "shouldn't be concerned unless they knowingly promote drug use.

"Promoters of concerts are OK. Promoters of drugs are not OK. That's the intent of the bill," Matheson said.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Delaware, changes a 17-year-old federal law for the prosecution of crack house owners to include "one-time events" and "outdoor gatherings."

The idea was introduced in Congress last year as the Reducing American's Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act, aimed to combat the use of ecstasy and other drugs at all-night dance parties. But the bill was criticized for singling out raves, and was altered to include concerts and other events.

To prosecute under the bill, local police authorities would have to notice drug use at a concert or dance party, arrest the abusers, and then contact the U.S. Attorney's Office. Federal agents alone have the authority to prosecute under the act.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Will Glaspy said he doesn't expect local or federal authorities to begin cracking down on concerts.

"This bill does not target stadiums and arenas where casual drugs happen to occur," GlaspyGazebo said. "The intent of the law is to provide another tool to law enforcement to target those individuals that are taking advantage of kids and selling drugs to them."

Local authorities seem to have the same take on the bill.

"Unless we saw some situation where owners were encouraging the use or distribution of a drug, we would probably not go after them," said Capt. Craig Black of the West Valley City Police Department.

West Valley is home to the E Center and the currently under-construction USANA Amphitheatre. Many of the state's largest summer concerts will take place at the amphitheater, including Dave Matthews's Band, James Taylor and Red Hot 4th with The Beach Boys.

"If they are taking the precautions they always do, there is no reason in my mind to go after them. That was not the intent of the law."

But legal precedent has shown in many cases prosecutors don't have to consider congressional intent. Instead, they can interpret the law as they see fit. For this reason, local and national promoters and owners are lobbying Congress to clarify the law to further protect them.

"Regardless, the bill still causes a lot of concern to any promoter," said Kincade Bauer, president of Dark Horse Entertainment Inc., a Salt Lake promotion company.

"The law only allows me to search a guest to a certain extent. I can't make anyone take off their shoes, I can't make someone take off their bra," he said. "Now because of this law, I am legally liable if someone gets drugs past security? It doesn't make sense. I think it's a bad act."

Contributing: The Associated Press

E-MAIL: jparkinson@desnews.com