Disco Donnie was on his way to the State Palace Theatre in downtown New Orleans when his cellphone rang. “Don’t come here,” warned the voice on the other end of the line. It was his business partner, Rob Brunet, one of the managers of the State Palace where that night Donnie was presenting a show called Phuture Phat Hong Kong Phooey. He asked what the matter was. “The DEA is here,” Brunet told him.
Donnie had waited two years for something like this to happen. Now his worst fears were coming true.
It was Aug. 26, 2000, and Donnie (real name James Estopinal Jr.) was one of the hottest dance music promoters in North America. His parties — including Zoolu, which took place over several days annually during Mardi Gras — were cavalcades of cartoonish excess, peopled by house DJs, rappers, B-boys, and drag queens. They regularly attracted thousands of ravers, many of whom dressed in costumes and traveled across state lines to attend.
Donnie was also in the crosshairs of the Drug Enforcement Administration, to whom he’d unwittingly become the primary target of a nationwide effort to prevent MDMA-related deaths at concerts. Two years prior to the raid, Jillian Kirkland, a high school student, died after taking the drug (more commonly known as ecstasy) and attending a Freebass Society party hosted by Donnie at the State Palace in August 1998.
“Everybody in the scene was very paranoid,” Donnie says over Zoom from his home in Puerto Rico, where his wife is from and where the two of them now live. “They thought their phones were being tapped and that they were being followed. So it was just a strange time.”
The DEA’s case went all the way to Capitol Hill. Before long, it threatened the very future of rave culture in America and counted a future President of the United States, then-Senator Joe Biden, as one of its primary players. In June 2002, Biden introduced the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy, or RAVE Act, with the intention of throwing the likes of Donnie and Brunet in prison.
On the 20-year anniversary of the introduction of this act, Biden is President, massive raves are a commonplace element of U.S. culture, and ecstasy fear-mongering has been overtaken by a very real opioid crisis, with a move away from the DEA’s early 2000s crackdowns towards a new focus on promoting harm reduction. Now, Donnie and others who lived through his case – the inflection point for Biden’s introduction of the RAVE act – are telling the story of their moment on the brink like it’s never been told before.
For promoters across the country, Donnie’s case – in which he was indicted under the infamous “Crackhouse Law” of the 1980s – and the RAVE Act that followed came as stark warnings.”We went from being promoters to being criminals overnight,” says Reza Gerami, a DJ and promoter behind some of the era’s biggest parties in Los Angeles, speaking to the mood of the era. (Gerami was never indicted under the “Crackhouse Law.”)
“I would be passing new ordinances relating to stiff criminal penalties for anyone who held a rave — the promoter, the guy who owned the building. I’d put the son of a gun in jail,” Biden promised in a March 2001 Congressional hearing.
Donnie, whose father DJ’ed under the moniker Disco Jim, grew up in New Orleans, and began throwing raves in his hometown with a handful of partners in 1994. As was common for such shows at that time, those early gigs took place in illegal warehouses. “It was always at risk of being shut down,” he remembers. “No permits, no insurance, no security, no age limit, selling alcohol — I mean, we did everything wrong.”
In 1995, Donnie landed his first legit gig at the State Palace, a Baroque-style movie theater that opened in 1927 on the edge of the French Quarter. The show wasn’t exactly a success: Only a few hundred people showed up, far fewer than the rock and grunge acts the venue typically booked. One of Donnie’s partners made off with the money. Still, Brunet — whose father, René, owned the theater, and whose brother, Brian, helped run it — saw the potential. “I’m like, ‘Y’all are onto something with this electronic music. But y’all don’t know dick about [doing] real production,'” Brunet remembers.
Though ecstasy was already a prevalent part of rave culture, Brunet didn’t see it being any worse than the drug and alcohol use that was rampant in rock circles. If anything, the scene’s PLUR ethos — “Peace, Love, Unity, Respect” — was a selling point. “The truth is, I would prefer some kid on drugs that’s wanting to hug everyone than some kid on drugs that wants to beat the shit out of everyone,” he says.
Under the banner of The Freebass Society with partner Dan Millstein, Donnie’s State Palace parties became a local and regional institution. He booked shows from Texas to Georgia, and partnered with L.A. promoter Insomniac Events for parties on the West Coast. Business was so good that the State Palace itself grew to include a rooftop bar, a next door warehouse that raised capacity to 5,000, and ultimately an adjoining record store and clothing shop. “It was like something I could never have imagined,” says Donnie.
Then came Kirkland’s death. A 17-year-old from outside Mobile, Ala., Kirkland made the more than two-hour trek to New Orleans with friends for one of Donnie’s parties, where she was rushed to the hospital after ingesting ecstasy. She spent two weeks in a coma before passing away on Aug. 25, 1998. Donnie says he was unaware of the incident until receiving the news of her death.
“My initial reaction was that I don’t want to do this anymore,” he says. “I felt a lot of blame. I wanted to talk to the mother. And I was discouraged from doing all that.”
Donnie believed they were doing what they could to ensure safety at their events. “We had paramedics at the shows, which is a normal occurrence now, but at the time seemed like we were admitting to some type of thing,” he says. Security and off-duty police were also on hand, as was DanceSafe, a nonprofit founded in 1998 that provides literature about drug safety to concertgoers.
Fans nonetheless went to the hospital in alarming numbers — in an April 2002 report, the DEA cited 400 such hospitalizations from Donnie’s shows in a two-year span — often due to complications from dehydration while on ecstasy. That was due in part to the length of the parties, according to Brunet. “Most other events started at 7:00, 8:00 and ended at 1:00, 2:00 a.m.,” he says, “whereas these events started at 8:00, 9:00 p.m. and ended at sun up.”
Robbie Hardkiss lived in San Francisco in the era and played the State Palace several times as part of the hit-making electronic trio Hardkiss. “The rave scene, it just got so big,” he says. “Those Donnie parties would have thousands of kids and tons of drugs. Problems are gonna happen. Attention is gonna go in that direction.”
About a month after Kirkland’s death, federal agents dropped in on Donnie’s Bourbon Street apartment early one morning. “I looked out the window [from my balcony] and there was three guys down there with the mirrored sunglasses,” Donnie recalls. “It looked like something from the movies.”
They were from the DEA, and asked to be let in. When Donnie declined (“I had a girl in there,” he says, but “didn’t really have” any drugs), they began pressing him for information on who the dealers were at his parties. They asked how much money he made. “Whatever it is, we’ll double it,” they told him. Donnie insisted he didn’t know the people they were looking for. “Then they started coming after me with personal attacks. You know, ‘You’re killing people,’ and ‘What you’re doing is wrong,’ and ‘We’re gonna get you eventually.'”
Before they left, the agents handed him a business card — in case, they said, he had a change of heart. “So yeah, that was basically an eye opener,” he says.
Still, for the next two years it seemed that nothing was out of the ordinary. Brunet recalls being contacted by the DEA about the possibility of deploying agents in the club to pursue drug dealers, but never heard further on the matter. He says the venue instead sent perpetrators that they caught to the New Orleans police department. In January 2000, however, the DEA launched Operation Rave Review, an undercover task force led by agent Michael Templeton that conducted surveillance at the State Palace. Over the course of the next six months, Templeton reported purchasing 45 hits of illegal substances, mostly ecstasy, between eight different parties. No arrests were made. The venue had no knowledge of this happening.
“Not only did we not think the DEA was targeting us, but we thought the DEA was working with us to make sure we were in full compliance of the law and wanted us to help them,” Brunet fumes. “So it was really f–ked up what they did.” (Templeton declined to be interviewed for this story.)
The August 2000 raid came two years almost to the day after Kirkland’s passing. It started a little after 8:00 p.m., an hour before doors were due to open for the Saturday night Phuture Phat Hong Kong Phooey. Fans were already lined up by the hundreds on the sidewalk when a busload of agents arrived and were dispersed inside the venue and at Brunet’s offsite office. “They literally took secretaries, anyone that worked at the DEA, put [them in] a DEA jacket and put them on that bus, just to make [a] spectacle,” Brunet says. Local news stations were there ready to record; Brunet figures they were tipped off in advance.
Brunet proceeded to walk the agents through the building, even opening speaker cabinets where the DEA suspected DJs or staff were hiding drugs. They came away with little in the way of said substances — all of one joint that was found on a member of the bar staff — but did make off with Brunet’s office files and confiscated water bottles, glow sticks, and pacifiers, which they claimed to be drug paraphernalia. By 1:00 a.m., the search was over.
Meanwhile, alerted by Brunet about what was going down at the venue, Donnie had driven downtown and camped out at a Middle Eastern restaurant next to the State Palace, where he set up a makeshift command center. In a scene that could’ve come right out of The Godfather, several DEA agents walked into the same restaurant to get dinner after wrapping up at the venue. “I’m like Public Enemy No. 1 sitting at the table. They go to order some food and I walk out right behind them,” Donnie says. A half hour later, doors opened at the State Palace and the show went ahead as planned. “It seemed at the time like the right thing to do,” Donnie muses, “but that really pissed them off.”
At the end of the night, Donnie and Brunet had a powwow between the streetcar lines in the middle of the street, looking to find neutral ground in case they were being bugged. “We’re talking like, ‘Wow, this could be the last show ever and, well, it was a good run,'” says Donnie. They suspected authorities would try playing them off against one another. “We made an agreement at that point that we were going to be allies, and we were not going to let the DEA or anyone come between us,” says Brunet.
The following Monday, they met with their attorneys. What they heard was shocking: The DEA was indicting them under the “Crackhouse Law,” a provision of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that prosecuted anyone who owned, leased, or rented a property “for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substances.” The law was aimed at slumlords, and according to the DEA had never been used against a concert promoter, rave or otherwise. (Before long, Biden would attempt to broaden its reach with the RAVE Act.) They also threatened to charge Donnie and the Brunets as a continuing criminal enterprise for allegedly distributing drugs at their shows, if they didn’t cooperate, say Donnie and Rob Brunet. The possible sentence under the “Crackhouse Law” alone could be 20 years in prison. “I’m just like, ‘Ah, life in prison. So soon,'” Donnie says.
Donnie always maintained that he never dealt drugs himself. “The only time was this brief period in the mid-‘90s that people were bringing nitrous tanks to the parties, and they would pay us to basically set up in there,” he says. Yet his attorney encouraged him to take a plea deal for the lighter sentence of one year in prison. (He could also avoid doing time if he agreed to wear a wire and flip on the dealers.) “He had a picture of the jail on his wall, for whatever reason; as a lawyer, I would probably not have that picture up there,” Donnie says. “And he was showing me it like, ‘Look, I can get you in here. You can play basketball during the day, and there’s all this grass. There’s no fence. You can’t cross the street, but it’s like a vacation.'”
All the while, Donnie continued throwing parties. Having them at the State Palace was out of the question, so he sought out other venues — and ran into problem after problem. One show was moved to a space called Pure Country in a small town outside New Orleans. Police swarmed the area that night, barricading roads, making repeated traffic stops, and going around the venue giving out citations to attendees. Another was canceled when police put pressure on the venue owner, who in turn pleaded with Donnie to call things off. But he also found a weekly residency at the House of Blues.
Doubling down on his innocence, Donnie hired a new lawyer, Patrick Fanning, a former assistant to the U.S. Attorney who advised him to tell prosecutors he’d take the plea deal — but for a much different reason. “Once you tell them that, they will tell us a lot more [about the evidence they have],” he told Donnie. (Fanning did not respond to request for comment.)
Meanwhile, the government attempted to build a larger case against rave promoters that would ultimately lead to new legislation in the shape of the RAVE Act. Prior even to the State Palace raid, authorities in Panama City Beach, Florida, raided Club La Vela – a popular local venue that hosted MTV’s spring break programming – in April 2000. Though no drugs were recovered in the raid, the club’s owners, Patrick and Thorsten Pfeffer, were (like Donnie and the Brunets) indicted under the “Crackhouse Law” in June 2001. At the same time, newly appointed DEA chief Donnie Marshall organized a series of drug summits and made several appearances before Congress to share the agency’s findings.
Having told prosecutor’s that he’d cooperate, Donnie was officially indicted in January 2001. Eddie Jordan, the then-U.S. Attorney for New Orleans, issued a press statement detailing the case. Until then, with Donnie unable to tell others about the charges, most onlookers assumed it had to do with tax evasion. “In my experience, this is one of the most unconscionable drug cases I’ve ever seen,” Jordan declared. “They used these raves to exploit young people by designing them for pervasive drug use.”
But the public sided far more with Donnie than law enforcement anticipated: The evidence seemed too flimsy, and the fact the DEA had let dealers go free came back to haunt them. “It was basically a week of people writing letters to the editor and the newspaper, and talking about it on talk radio [saying] that this is bulls–t, this guy’s just the promoter,” Donnie says.
Donnie was now free to talk to the press, and was soon reported on by the likes of TIME and CNN. Though Donnie told prosecutors he would take a plea deal during the bargaining process, he never actually did so. When he finally appeared before a judge, he plead not guilty. He also now had the American Civil Liberties Union fighting on his behalf, as the organization came to his defense after hearing Jordan’s public comments.
From there, the DEA’s case quickly fell apart. In March 2001, Jordan dropped the charges. In return, Brunet pled his company, Barbecue of New Orleans, guilty and agreed to pay a $100,000 fine. He transferred ownership of the State Palace to his head of security but continued working there himself, and a ban was put in place on pacifiers and glow sticks. “They made it crystal clear… to us that they didn’t give a f–k about the conviction, they just wanted a conviction,” Brunet says. The company had $10,000 in its bank account; it was the only money ever paid towards the fine.
Back in Florida, the Pfeffers took their case to trial in November 2001. (“They called me and were asking for advice,” Donnie says.) Jurors came back with a “not guilty” verdict on all charges in less than two hours. Authorities had struck out twice on establishing a new legal precedent under the “Crackhouse Law.”
That wasn’t the end of the crusade, however. The same month that Donnie’s charges were dropped, Biden made his comments before Congress, vowing to go after rave promoters and venue owners. “Arrest the promoter. Find a rationale unrelated to drugs,” he said, suggesting that the “Crackhouse Law” could be used “to tear down these buildings.” Biden was one of the authors of the original Anti-Drug Abuse Act, and wanted to amend the legislation to make it easier to win cases like the one against Donnie, who admits the Delaware Senator wasn’t even on his radar at this point.
When Biden introduced the RAVE Act in June of 2002, Donnie’s case was the clear catalyst. Though Donnie wasn’t mentioned by name, the State Palace was the lone venue to be singled out and the core example he built his argument around. “In a two-year period, 52 raves were held at the New Orleans State Palace Theater, during which time approximately 400 teenagers overdosed and were treated at local emergency rooms,” Biden stated. “Following ‘Operation Rave Review,’ which resulted in the arrest of several rave promoters and closing the city’s largest rave, overdoses and emergency room visits dropped by 90 percent and ecstasy overdoses have been eliminated.”
The RAVE Act eventually failed to pass after two of its sponsors dropped their support, but Biden tacked a largely similar bill, renamed the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, onto the Amber Alert child abduction bill. It passed in April 2003, without discussion or a vote. Biden, facing criticism even within Congress over potential First Amendment violations, tried to tone down his rhetoric. “In no way is this bill aimed at stifling any type of music or expression,” he said. “It is only trying to deter illicit drug use and protect kids.”
No major cases were ever successfully prosecuted under the legislation, still commonly referred to as the RAVE Act. The fallout of its passing, however, had a chilling effect on dance music in the United States.
The industry underwent a major contraction in the coming years, with promoters struggling to book venues and marquee events like Insomniac’s Electric Daisy Carnival pulling a small portion of its usual attendance. Even Donnie relocated to Columbus, Ohio, for a time.
But it took less than a decade for the scene to rebound in the U.S. Daft Punk’s legendary set at Coachella in 2006 was a watershed moment, and by the early 2010s dance music was back, under the auspices of the EDM boom. With the genre surging in popularity through the power of European acts like Avicii and Swedish House Mafia and homegrown talent like Skrillex, the genre became a billion-dollar business in the U.S, with longstanding dance events like Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra in Miami also ballooning in both size and profitability. Corporate money also entered the fray, with Insomniac Events entering into a partnership with Live Nation in 2013.
While companies like Fedex and Verizon were eager to partner with EDM entities and advertise to this now-mainstream youth movement, tragedies persisted in spite of the legislation that was supposed to stop them. The drug-related deaths of young attendees at EDM-era events including Electric Zoo, Electric Daisy Carnival and HARD Summer cast a fresh shadow over the EDM boom.
Indeed, two decades after the RAVE Act, the legislation continues impacting the safety of EDM-era concertgoers — namely as its original wording, promoters say, prompted promoters to remove certain harm reduction services (even access to free water) from their events, for fear of incriminating themselves. “The RAVE Act has really acted as a sort of boogeyman for promoters all this time, and hasn’t really been shown to have all that many teeth,” says Mitchell Gomez, Executive Director at DanceSafe.
He says the organization has never found an instance of a promoter being prosecuted for providing harm reduction services, even though many of them stopped allowing DanceSafe at their events because of it. Insomniac Events CEO Pasquale Rotella alluded to this in a 2014 Reddit AMA. “[W]hen the venue, the local authorities, and the insurers are opposed to it, you won’t have that location as an option,” Rotella argued, adding that “[p]art of me is grateful I got denied from bringing in DanceSafe everywhere I went,” owing to the perceived legal liability having them there posed.
When 19-year-old Shelley Goldsmith died after attending an event at Echostage in Washington, D.C., in 2013, her mother, Dede, began a campaign called Amend the RAVE Act. She places the blame for the loss of lives like her daughter’s at the feet of promoters and venue owners.
“They chose to interpret [the law] to mean they were not allowed to put in place safety measures to protect the young people who attended their concerts,” Goldsmith writes via email, describing their actions as a “strategic cost-benefit analysis.” She points to issues at Echostage like a lack of water and training among staff and an overcrowded venue as key factors that could have made Shelley’s death preventable. “Although [Shelley] had taken MDMA, the toxicology report showed that it was not enough to cause death,” she says.
Tammy Anderson, a sociology professor at University of Delaware and author of Rave Culture: The Alteration and Decline of a Philadelphia Music Scene, worked with Goldsmith to lobby for legislative change. Initially the hope was to repeal the RAVE Act altogether, but, despite getting as far as meeting with White House staff, the focus shifted to changing its language due to resistance over wholesale removal. “She fought. She fought for a long time. A bunch of other people were on board, other advocacy and community groups,” says Anderson. “And it just died. Because they gave up. No one took it up. It just seemed amending the law wasn’t important.”
Finally, in 2018 the Department of Justice issued a decision stating that it would not view harm reduction services as evidence for wrongdoing — at which point Goldsmith stepped down from her role with Amend the RAVE Act. (The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.) She admits it’s a difficult subject to return to, given the tragic circumstances that got her involved in the fight. “[Shelley’s death] never should have happened, and I’ll never truly recover to who I once was,” Goldsmith says. “Regardless of my good works, she’s gone forever.”
Since this DOJ decision, Gomez has seen an increase in events welcoming DanceSafe to attend events, and even to provide one of their most important services, free onsite drug testing. He attributes that, in part, to concerns over the opioid crisis. “There’s been sort of a bottom-up demand for harm reduction services as fentanyl has spread into so many non-opioid drugs. So we really have seen more people within the scene being serious about harm reduction,” Gomez says. That includes local law enforcement, as well as fans, many of whom he says are quick to throw out drugs the minute they find traces of contamination.
While Gomez still believes the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act needs to be repealed, he sees the change in policy as further undercutting promoters’ opposition to harm reduction services. “If a person dies [at your event] and the parents or attorneys find out that drug tracking services are out there, and were willing to work with you, that also creates liability,” he says.
The conversation around ecstasy has changed dramatically in the 20 years since Biden first championed the RAVE Act, with states like California even pushing for its legalization in medicinal and therapeutic settings. But Anderson doesn’t see the President losing much sleep over it. “That was a period when these guys were still embarking on the War on Drugs — like policies, which were part of the political environment, right? And that’s what people wanted them to do,” Anderson says. “Now people want to do the reverse. They’re tired of the War on Drugs, which is basically considered a failure.”
Even Donnie’s opinion has softened on Biden, whom he figures “had to find somebody to blame” given the political outcry at the time. As a father himself, he sympathizes. “It’s a natural reaction for a parent to try to protect their kids and their family, and that’s just how I’ve looked back on it,” he says.
When Biden ran for President in 2020, Donnie says people from both sides of the political aisle asked him to weigh in, but he stayed away from public comment. “I live in Puerto Rico, I can’t even vote,” he says. “But I can get people to register to vote. And that was our main goal, to try to get people involved instead of picking a side.” He insists he would’ve voted for Biden had he been able to. “This guy tried to put me away and tried to ruin what was my lifestyle, my livelihood,” Donnie says. “But at the end of the day, I still supported him for President.”
Brunet doesn’t share his generosity. “Obviously I’m not a fan,” he says of the current President. The same goes for those involved in the indictment: He points out that U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan and the judge who presided over his case, Thomas Porteus, were later forced to step down over scandals (Jordan over a lawsuit related to racial discrimination, and Porteus owing to bribery and perjury allegations.) So, too, did Jordan’s successor, Jim Letten, who took over for Jordan in the proceedings after the indictment was dropped. “I thought that was a little comical,” Brunet says, wryly. Templeton, now retired from the DEA, ran for office himself this spring, entering a sheriff’s race in Tennessee on a staunch anti-drug platform; he lost.
Donnie — whose company Disco Donnie Presents still promotes large-scale U.S. electronic festivals like Texas’ Ubbi Dubbi and Florida’s Sunset Music Festival — takes a more pragmatic view. “I think the U.S. Attorney thought he was doing his job. I think the DEA agents thought they were doing their job. I don’t think they had malice towards me. I just think they didn’t understand what was going on,” he says. “They just picked the wrong guy.”