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All the rage

Late-night raves described as havens for perilous drug use may be halted by an ordinance Tampa will consider today.

Dwight Bronson, 20, hangs out before going to a rave at Cream in Tampa early Sunday. [Times photo: Dirk Shadd]


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 1998

TAMPA -- It's 2:45 a.m. on Sunday and bartenders across town are bellowing last call and turning on the house lights.

But in downtown Tampa, the line for the bay area's biggest rave party is just beginning to form outside a club called Cream.

A special forum: What's your opinion on raves? Do they need to be restricted or do raves need be better understood by officials?
The crowd is young, pierced, tattooed and decidedly middle class. A tallish, shirtless teenager with peach fuzz on his jowls sucks on a Winnie the Pooh pacifier and raises a canister of computer cleaner to his mouth and sprays.

A man in Jnco jeans that sag below his boxer shorts talks about the drug Ecstasy he says he has stored for use later on, then hoists his girlfriend in a helicopter motion above his shoulders.

Inside the club, flashing strobe lights illuminate a dance floor packed with teenagers and 20somethings who will party until well after dawn to the gut-thumping, hypnotic rhythm of techno music.

Last week, a Pinellas Park teenager died after a nitrous oxide-induced fall at a rave club a block away from Cream on N Franklin Street. But early Sunday, the after-hours party scene that dominates downtown Tampa and draws ravers from all over the bay area appeared untamed.

Today, the Tampa City Council will attempt to douse the rave culture by changing a city ordinance to force all businesses with a dance hall license -- including rave clubs -- to close at 3 a.m.

The vote aims to address a recent rash of rave-related deaths and overdoses. In March, a 19-year-old Citrus County man died after overdosing at a Tampa rave club. Two weeks ago, three Pinellas ravers were hospitalized after overdosing on GHB, a banned substance used at raves. And last week, 19-year-old Kelly Hendershot died a day after she used nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, fell and hit her head at the Studio on Franklin Street in Tampa.

Police say such incidents are becoming more frequent: A rave goes bad and police are called in the early morning hours to pick up the pieces.

"It's been an ongoing type of problem," said Tampa police spokesman Steve Cole. "All of a sudden at 8 a.m. we'll get calls about kids who are having problems."

But critics of the crackdown argue that regulating the clubs is like squeezing a balloon: The raves will only spring up elsewhere, possibly in more dangerous forms.

"The police need to get schooled, they need to work with the scene," said Kevin McGarry, who until last summer owned a rave club in Pinellas County. "The more they try to shut it down, the bigger it's going to get."

Raves started as an underground phenomenon before people like McGarry recognized the potential for profit. Held in fields, warehouses and other secret locations, they provided an opportunity for open drug use, rave patrons say.

Inside Cream, lasers played to a racially integrated crowd of dancers on the first floor while a second group hovered on the mezzanine above. Clumps of teens and people in their 20s sat slumped over one another in darkened corners giving each other back and hand massages. Some said they had taken Ecstasy, the potent amphetamine that generates a craving for touch and sensation. Others snorted a substance from vials.

A trio of women wearing halter tops and tight pants reclined on the floor while male ravers provided a personal light show, twirling red, white and green glow sticks in circular patterns above them.

On an overstuffed couch in a corner a blond man with a Vicks inhaler in his mouth knelt a foot away from another male teenager and grabbed his head, running his fingers through his hair. He moved in to within inches of his friend's face and began exhaling through the inhaler into his friend's eyes, nose and mouth.

The inhalers, available at any drugstore, create a burning, numbing sensation. By morning, taking a deep breath in the smoky club almost clears one's sinuses.

Ravers call being on Ecstasy "rolling," their senses enhanced.

The same sensation in Vicks that clears an undrugged person's sinuses is heightened over 100 times for a person on Ecstasy, said Orlando police Detective Tom Matthews, who has gone undercover in rave clubs.

"It feels better to have one finger rubbed while you're rolling on X (Ecstasy) than to have a full-body massage while you're sober," Matthews said.

Kelly Hendershot's death did not seem to dampen the mood Saturday. Many shunted it aside as the act of one person who behaved irresponsibly.

"I feel badly for her family ... but she's the one to blame," said Robert, 25, who said he never does drugs at raves. "You can't blame it on the raves." Like the other patrons interviewed by the Times, Robert would not give his full name to a reporter.

He noted that patrons are supposed to be 18 or over. Indeed, at Cream and other clubs, bouncers are stationed outside to check IDs.

"Everybody in here knows what they're doing," said Dave, 29, who said he had taken Ecstasy. "There are no victims here."

Cream manager Curtis Dambeck said Wednesday that he took over the club three weeks ago and is trying to run a clean business, "but we can't catch everybody."

Cream does not allow purses or other bags past the front door. Starting this weekend, Dambeck said, the bouncers will be patting down ravers in baggy pants to make sure drugs aren't being smuggled in.

Dambeck said he wishes the city and rave owners could work together to regulate the flow of drugs into the clubs. "I'm willing to compromise, to work with the city on this," he said. Dambeck said he will put a paramedic and a police officer in his club, if necessary.

Kevin McGarry argues that police should embrace the rave movement instead of trying to quash it.

McGarry said he closed his club, the Theater at the Boatyard Village, after police began stopping patrons as they left. He was later charged with operating a drug house.

Since then, the Theater has been replaced by smaller, less-regulated raves in warehouses, storefronts and kids' homes across the county, McGarry said.

The crackdown "isn't going to stop raves," said Dambeck of Cream. "It's going to be underground and unregulated. And if they're unregulated, drugs will be everywhere."

If raves do go back underground, Tampa City Council member Bob Buckhorn said, the city would just have to deal with it.

"At that point, it becomes a policing issue," said Buckhorn, the primary backer of the ordinance to close rave halls at 3 a.m. "There is no middle ground on this. They have to go."

On a typical night, McGarry said, he could make $10,000, charging a $10 cover charge to the 1,500 to 2,000 kids who streamed through the doors on weekends.

He would pay the DJ -- one of an elite group of mixers who can draw a teeming crowd -- about $5,000. The rest of his profits would be split with a club promoter, who advertised the rave and produced its elaborate laser show.

Matthews, the Orlando detective, says drugs are integral to the rave experience.

"If they say they're only there for the music and the lights, then they're lying," Matthews said. "I guarantee that 90 percent of the people in that club were on some sort of illegal drug."

Among drugs police say are favored by ravers are GHB and nitrous oxide, which can be purchased in packages as mundane as whipped cream dispensers. Ecstasy's aspirin-size tablets go for about $25 a pill, Matthews said.

None of these drugs, including Ecstasy, are addictive. But Matthews said the dealers have found a way around that by lacing the Ecstasy they sell with cocaine and heroin. "They put heroin in it to make it addictive," Matthews said. "MDMA (Ecstasy) is very expensive, so they'll fill it out with some cheap cocaine to give it a burst."

Rave clubs are prohibited by law from selling alcohol. Instead, they are stocked with what appears to be the innocuous trappings of a trendy teen hang-out: bottled water, lollipops and glow-stick mouthpieces.

Rave veterans said such items alleviate the side effects of Ecstasy, which include dehydration and jaw clenching.

The parties can last past the time some of the ravers' parents might arrive at church the next morning.

At daybreak on Sunday, the parking lot of Cream was still packed with cars, including one white stretch limousine that served as party headquarters for several shirtless men.

Meanwhile, a pack of teens moved through the parking lot with a Father's Day message for their fellow revelers.

"Room 222 at the Holiday Inn," one teenager barked. "We've got a tank of nitrous, a lot of cocaine and a little bit of alcohol left!"


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