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Military Orders an About-Face At D.C. Club

Drug Activity Puts Nation Off Limits to Personnel

By Natalie Hopkinson

Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, September 10, 2002; Page C01

The strobe-lit Nation in Southeast Washington has drawn club kids from near and far, mainly for the concerts, hot deejays and rave parties.

Police, however, say there's an added attraction: Ecstasy, heroin, amphetamines. "It's become a hot spot all over the East Coast, not just for the music or the parties, but for the narcotics that are sold inside and outside of the club," says Inspector Hilton Burton of the D.C. police.

Not even our buzz-cut men in uniform have been immune.

Since 1999, 91 service members have been busted on military installations for using, selling or possessing illegal drugs that, they told investigators, they got from Nation. And for months, undercover military investigators have witnessed service members buying drugs such as marijuana and Ecstasy in the club just off South Capitol Street.

As a result, the Joint Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board recently voted to ban all Washington area military personnel from Nation. "The military services are working together to curtail the availability of illegal drugs to our service members," Col. Michael Stewart, the board's president, said in a written statement.

The board -- made up of representatives from each of the military branches -- plans to continue its surveillance of the club to make sure military personnel obey orders. Violators could face anything from no punishment to a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and two years' confinement.

This is the first official ban the board has issued on a local club. (The board also has restricted access to parts of the Potomac River for safety reasons.) It is common for individual branches to declare some areas off limits. For instance, some Marines say they've been told to stay away from the Edge, a Southeast nightspot whose "wet" nights feature male strippers and a largely male crowd.

The Nation ban is indefinite for the time being, but the board says it will consider lifting it if the nightclub's owner can show that things have been cleaned up.

Numerous attempts to contact Nation management for a response were unsuccessful. Reached by phone last week at the Northern Virginia headquarters of Nation, a division of Primacy Cos., Nation Marketing Director Greg Alemian declined to comment, referring all questions to his colleague Jim Boyle, who did not return at least a dozen phone calls requesting comment.

Police, though, say they don't believe the drug activity is sanctioned by club management.

This isn't the first time that Nation has been in the spotlight for drug-related activity. Three years ago, the cavernous nightclub and concert venue was the subject of a two-part series by WTTG-TV focusing on a weekly rave called Buzz, where cameras recorded patrons using illegal drugs. The Buzz party was briefly put on ice. Now, at nine years, the Friday night bash is one of the area's longest-running rave parties.

And in 2000, a gay rights group got wind of the military's surveillance activities at Velvet Nation, the club's long-standing Saturday night party that caters to a primarily gay clientele. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network accused the military of conducting a witch hunt of gay service members at Nation in an attempt to skirt the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The board's recent action applies to all concerts and parties at the club, including Buzz and Alchemy, the industrial/goth night. "This is certainly within the military's right to do," says Steve Ralls, a spokesman for the Servicemembers group. "Military bases across the country have similar off-limits lists that name bars and clubs that are known for drug usage."

The board vote came about Aug. 22 after months of observing the situation at Nation, according to military board spokesman Tom Findtner. D.C. police representatives briefed board members in August. Nation management, also present, unsuccessfully tried to stop the ban, Findtner said.

Nation has long posed a challenge to the police, who are actively working to curtail the availability of drugs there. (And the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration is addressing unspecified complaints, according to Director Maria M. Delaney.) But police have stopped short of trying to shut down the club for a number of reasons, according to Burton, a member of the department's major-narcotics branch. Though there have been a handful of arrests for drug activity outside Nation in the past year, the crowd is largely peaceful, and violence rarely erupts there, he said.

"If we found underage drinking or shooting in the club, it would be a lot easier to do that," Burton said.

Then there is the problem of making arrests for drug activity. "It's a hard area for us to work, especially doing undercover operations," Burton said. He said it's difficult to find officers who can blend in with Nation's largely young, suburban clientele.

"You can't send your typical officer, even your typical narcotics officer," he said. "Someone who really doesn't know the music, the lingo, the culture, they are going to stick out like a sore thumb."

Several of the young servicemen milling around the Marine Barracks in Southeast Washington said they were unfamiliar with Nation. Those who did seemed to take the recent directive, which they saw posted on bulletin boards, as part and parcel of the military discipline they signed up for.

"I think it's fair," said a 22-year-old Marine who wouldn't give his name. "How can you do something when you're not in that element? It's just one less place for them to go to get in trouble."

Other servicemen said many of the drug problems arise from new recruits who are away from home for the first time. "They are still in their transitional phase," said a 19-year-old Marine who enlisted right out of high school.

"Young people today are more liberated. They pretty much do what they want to do. They might experiment when they get in."

The one time he'd been to Nation, when he was in high school a few years ago, he didn't notice any drugs, the Marine said. But in any case, he's not sweating the ban.

"There are plenty of clubs in D.C.," he said.

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