THE PARKING LOT after a Phish concert is a notoriously dirty drug scene. I used to feel less disturbed by it than I do now, but I was younger then and I think I glorified the drugs. Now all I see are nitrous-filled balloons that sell for twenty dollars apiece and alcoholics who will grab your ass and may or may not end up passing out in a stranger’s tent. When Phish plays the Gorge in George, Washington, and everyone camps overnight, the lot becomes a virtual no man’s land. The people that you enjoyed the concert with turn into zombies, wobbling around high on cat tranquilizers (Ketamine) or stalking the sunrise on a slow comedown from their long, winding acid trip.
At the Gorge this past July there were two Shakedown Streets, makeshift roads lined with people selling things: food, clothing, fairy wings, hula hoops, ceramic masks, stone jewelry—though it’s a destination best known for the endless array of mind-altering possibilities for sale or trade. Drug dealers will approach your campsite, trying to barter hash for tickets or a gram of Molly—MDMA, or ecstasy, the most popular drug—for around $100 cash. It’s a place where anything can be bought, sold or traded, and for years it operated according to mutual trust; when someone sold you a drug you assumed they weren’t trying to poison you, and that it was in fact what they claimed it to be. Though always illegal, LSD was in fact LSD, opium wasn’t black tar heroin, and you weren’t likely to get crack instead of the cocaine you were promised.
It’s over a mile hike from the Gorge concert venue back to the campground, and the re-acclimation from show to campsite can be as harsh as the unexpected flare of the fluorescent lights. I made the walk back with my friend Ashley, who I’d met a few weeks before at a Phish show in Saratoga Springs, New York. Ashley is beautiful, her parents are prominent government employees, and having recently graduated college, she decided to follow Phish that summer. That night she was wearing a long, button-down black tunic with a pattern of red roses and a $300 leather cowboy hat. I remember because it was my birthday, and though it had only been a few weeks, we were fast friends by the time we got to Washington. Walking back that night, we held a mutual dread for the nitrous hustlers we would have to pass, less so because we’re opposed to nitrous itself, but because in general it makes for a gross scene; they’re selling something most people want, at an absurdly inflated price, and with the Nitrous Mafia can come deaths, unnecessary aggression, and indifferent campsite neighbors who stay up until sunrise giggling and inhaling, keeping you awake with the hiss of their tank. Before we entered the campground (and thus the nitrous), we saw a booth situated at the entrance, the blur of a pink and purple jellyfish-like tent, all good vibes and chill tunes. We went closer, and there, nestled among food vendors, with no line and an austere aura, we found the Bunk Police, selling something entirely different: drug-testing kits.
We knew of the Bunk Police from Saratoga Springs, and also because they’d maintained a constant presence on the Phish tour all summer. They had been at other festivals, from the more mainstream Coachella, Bonaroo, and Wakarusa, to obscure electronic gatherings like Lightning in a Bottle and Firefly. The anonymous organization, run by volunteers, preaches harm reduction through education about misrepresented substances. The kits vary depending on the kind of drug you’re testing, but in principle they’re all the same: you dissolve a minuscule amount of your substance in the chemicals provided in your kit (one is good for about 50-100 tests), and depending upon the color change, you know what drug you’re dealing with. The test kits are essentially the same as what a cop would use if he were trying to test someone’s drugs. The Bunk Police sell kits for $20 apiece to drug users so that they can increase their safety and call out fraudulent (or simply ignorant) dealers.
Jeffrey Bryan Chambers spent the summer following the Bunk Police and filming their experience for his forthcoming documentary What’s in my Baggie? Chambers and his crew traveled across the country shooting the Bunk Police’s work, largely through BP volunteers’ interactions with customers, and the campsites where most of the testing occurs (the BP only sell the kits; they leave the testing up to you). When I asked Chambers what he and his crew found doing this work, he hesitated: “It’s hard to say an actual percentage. It’s difficult to say or even quantify all the drugs even at a festival, say like Bonaroo, where there’s upwards of 80,000 people camping in one area.” I pressed him to be more specific. “I can confidently say that from what we saw, over half of the substances were misrepresented, most commonly bath salts being sold as MDMA,” he said. Of the cocaine samples his crew tested over the summer, only one in over 30 cases even contained cocaine. As a population, we’ve been dealing with cocaine for decades, and when cut, most often it’s with methamphetamine. Bath Salts and other research chemicals—many of which are legal and available in bulk on the Internet—that masquerade as Molly and LSD, pose a more serious threat.
Overdoses from Molly continue to make headlines, like the most publicized deaths from this past summer: in New York (at the Electric Zoo Festival), Washington (at a District club), Boston (at the House of Blues), and Southern California (at the Nocturnal Wonderland Festival). As recently as last month, three were reported dead from a trance festival, though police haven’t specified what substances were suspected to have caused their deaths. Nonetheless, it’s reasonable to ask whether or not users that had died at these events were taking MDMA at all. Pegged as a euphoric escape from everyday issues —a free love sort of cure-all—ecstasy was originally celebrated for its therapeutic potential in the 1970s, as with LSD in the 1960s. The purported success of using Molly in therapy led to its widespread use in the club scene and eventually it was made a Schedule 1 drug, meaning no further research and an institutional disregard for any of its medicinal applications. I first heard of Molly in 2007, and unlike the pressed pills of ecstasy I had seen in high school, it was typically sold in white powder form and widely hyped as a much purer drug. In a news story titled “Molly deaths may be caused by other drugs,” a government health official told NBC News Investigations that before the rise of Molly, “from the public health point of view, MDMA was not felt to be an incredibly high-risk drug.”
Festival regular and drug aficionado Jordan Fisher grew up in the small California town of Baskerville, a conservative community where his father worked as a farmer. He now lives in San Diego and makes his living selling cannabis food to dispensaries. Fisher is also a friend and co-worker of Chambers; it was his connection and previous work with the Bunk Police that made their documentary a possibility. Since the Bunk Police is a grass-roots organization comprised of anonymous volunteers, I was thankful to be able to get the perspective of both Fisher and Chambers, the only people I have met who have been documenting the scene in-depth. The volunteers buy the test kits in bulk from the Bunk Police website, and then sell them individually at a slightly higher mark up to anyone in need of a kit. Fisher’s own experience with misrepresented substances led him to spread the Bunk Police’s gospel: “We ended up with what we thought was LSD but was actually 25I-NBOMe,” a research chemical. He calls it a “jarring experience,” especially since he ran with a crowd that was comfortable with LSD and had never questioned that he could be getting fake drugs, with potentially deadly effects. For others who aren’t so comfortable with drug use, a run-in with a misrepresented substance can be even more traumatic.
The man who founded the Bunk Police, who in my correspondence I came to call the Captain, is anonymous for good reason; though the organization’s made up of many invisible faces, the Captain is at the helm of the BP. Though he refused to talk to me for months, at times it seemed like he wanted to be interviewed; ultimately, I think he believes his anonymity is best for everyone. As a result, I came to think of the organization as a collection of individuals doing each other a service. In our last correspondence I asked how the Bunk Police were faring, and the Captain replied with a wink. “Strong as ever,” his message read. “Keep an eye out over the next few months.”
He’s also anonymous, I’m sure, because it’s dangerous work. While the Captain was selling test kits in Honduras, someone tried to burn down the Bunk Police tent with him and Fisher inside, and he’s even received threats of gun violence over Facebook because of his work in the US. Fisher and Chambers once looked into how much they could potentially be making running a really serious counterfeit drug racket at a music festival and found that, as Fisher explained, “a person has the capacity to make up to $100,000 cash in a single weekend with very little effort and get away cleanly.”
Chambers told me a story about filming a group of people in their early twenties at Sasquatch music festival over Memorial Day weekend, also at the Gorge in Washington. Unlike Phish, the bands that play Sasquatch—2013 saw Mumford and Sons, the XX, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Sigur Rós and the Postal Service headlining—aren’t culturally associated with excessive drug use, though people are still rolling face and dropping L. Chambers relayed a story, which he said was exemplary, but not so different from other events: a group of festival goers tested their drugs, and when they saw that it wasn’t Molly, but rather Bath Salts, one of them turned to his friend and said, “We bought $4,000 worth of Bath Salts?” For Chambers, “That’s kind of where it hit home.” Someone who buys $4,000 worth of what they think is Molly is doing so with the intent of selling it, and if their intent was to sell drugs at Sasquatch, one can only assume what they were going to do after that point. It becomes a vicious cycle of people trying to make their money back and then some.
Chambers and Fisher know how easy it is to sneak drugs into a festival, because they’ve been forced to sneak in hundreds of test kits. They’ve even disassembled Fisher’s Volkswagen bus to cram test kits into its side panels, which he claims left him feeling “a little bit like a drug dealer.” Festivals don’t want the Bunk Police there because it means admitting that rampant drug use is occurring under their watch, which of course it is. Festivals have tried to kick the BP out, and they’ve been harassed on multiple occasions by organizers. This is in contrast to a group like DanceSafe, who also preach harm reduction. However, unlike the Bunk Police, DanceSafe emphasize substance education and work only with consenting festivals. They also have people send in their drugs to be tested, rather than sell kits for users to do it themselves. The Bunk Police’s model is more realistic, and their guerilla tactics seem to be making an impact. In the two years since the Bunk Police have been selling kits, thousands of samples have been tested, and there’s been a noticeable change in the festival circuit.
My friend Ashley from the Phish tour has a boyfriend named Chris. I’ve changed their names, because they were then making a living selling LSD. Chris now works in sales, but at the time he loved selling drugs, especially as it meant ending each workday with a Phish show. I was immediately drawn to Ashley and Chris; an attractive, well dressed couple, they’re self-assured in their coolness. It took me a few days of hanging around to realize how they earned money. Though almost always strangers, their customers seemed more like friends, and when people asked if they could test the Acid before purchasing it, they were told they could. Chris thinks of himself less as a drug dealer than as “a spiritual guide,” and though that’s largely a matter of opinion, I can remember several instances when customers came back later to thank him for the quality product and his interactions; friends would refer friends, and people would wander over for conversation to wind up becoming customers.
“It’s kind of generally a sketchy business,” Chris said of drug dealing. “You kind of want to wrap it up as quickly as possible and not spend too much time. I like to project a different face for the game, be somebody that you can talk to about it and ask questions.” Ashley is adamant that asking questions is a necessary step to reducing harm. “People who are inexperienced often don’t want to appear like they don’t know what they’re talking about,” she said. It’s unfortunate but true, especially when I think of the image I wanted to project when I first found this scene: knowledgeable, older than I looked, and seemingly not as naïve as I actually was.
Both Chris and Ashley have noticed an increase in the number of people testing their drugs—Chris went as far as calling this past summer “revolutionary.” I remember sitting with them at their campsite in Saratoga Springs before the Sunday night Phish show, and someone came by trying to sell us Moon Rocks—or pure MDMA—which is relatively hard to procure. If Moon Rocks are Kristal, then Molly is Bud Light. “Sure, we’re interested,” said Chris, “but we need to test it.” Then, something strange happened: the person got defensive, made an excuse, and walked away. We didn’t even need a test kit—the dealer knew that she was slinging misrepresented substances, and simply demanding to test it was enough to send her away.
“There’s certainly not a community or town where you can’t buy drugs,” Sean Dunagan, a 13-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Agency, said. His work with the DEA consisted of intelligence analysis (judicial wire-taps, looking at people in databases, analyzing movements), and strategic analysis. His work took him, along with his wife and children, from Florida to Guatemala on to Mexico. I never thought I would get on so easily with a former DEA agent, but I instantly liked Dunagan; he comes across like a good father, one who asks the right questions.
Having come to the conclusion that the US war on drugs was doing much more harm than good, Dunagan eventually quit the DEA. “We’re doing all of this [work] and spending all this money and creating all this violence and supporting the cartels [with our policies] and what’s the result?” he asked. “Drugs aren’t harder to get, kids aren’t less likely to do them, they’re more dangerous—more people die of overdoses because the things you’re getting in the bag are greatly fluctuating in purity levels—but we’re not keeping anyone from doing them. So there’s a tremendous cost and from what I see no real benefit.”
Proponents for the legalization and regulation of all drugs tend to make comparisons to alcohol and the US’s brief stint with Prohibition. As a nation we accepted that people were going to drink, and eventually concluded that we’d rather legalize and regulate alcohol than have people getting blinded by bathtub gin. We also often forget about the effect our policies and consumption habits have beyond our borders. While serving in Mexico, Dunagan was shocked by the level of violence he considered intensified by US strategy. “You know the Gulf cartel in Mexico started out during Prohibition running alcohol,” he said at one point while discussing the criminal empire sustained by drug prohibition. “They didn’t go away when alcohol Prohibition ended, obviously.”
Dunagan now works for a company that monitors government oversight, and in his spare time advocates as part of an agency known as LEAP, or Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He works with people who were prosecutors, judges, prison guards, DEA agents, economists with the CIA, people who at one time had careers prosecuting for the war on drugs and have come to the opinion that it’s a failed war. They speak to church groups, Lion’s Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, places that are typically more susceptible to the black-and-white mentality that people who use drugs are bad, and that they deserve whatever happens to them. These are people that don’t go to festivals, who don’t use drugs, but whose support is nonetheless crucial to affecting any significant change.
There is often an implicit assumption that drug users are the derelicts of society, so when someone dies of an overdose, it can be depicted as their fault. In reality, it’s more similar to someone who dies of lung cancer after choosing to smoke cigarettes, though for Dunagan, “the difference [is] that the overdose is often attributable to misrepresented substances or tremendous variance in drug purity. Overdoses only happen because of prohibition.” There is a sense that people who use drugs and are harmed—or die—are somehow less deserving of our sympathy because drugs are illegal. “That’s just crazy,” says Dunagan. “Anyone with kids should realize that that’s ridiculous.”
When the War on Drugs began, casual users were often portrayed as more of a problem than addicts, and that same mentality lingers in the culture. As with other structural failures that date back to the ’80s, I’m prepared to blame Reagan for this, though in reality it was the fault of every citizen that let programs like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education)—which had no evidence of being successful—take hold throughout the nation. In fact, it was D.A.R.E. founder and Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates who said that he believed “casual drug users should be taken out and shot.” Considering that weed is now legal in Colorado and Washington, and other states are set to follow, it’s safe to say that public opinion is beginning to shift. Young people are bound to experiment, especially when drugs are easier to procure than alcohol. The reality is that some people experiment and eventually decide that certain kinds of drugs, and drug use, are perfectly acceptable.
In a broader context, the United States, of all nations in the world, is one that is particularly fond of mind-altering substances. Just ask any number of our public officials who have admitted to using them, from Barack Obama to Congressman Trey Radel. The Bunk Police is a pragmatic, grass-roots campaign aimed at supplementing a failed war. “It’s great, what they do,” said Dunagan, “and I have absolutely no doubt that it saves people’s lives.” Still, they have a hard time being taken seriously by festivals, despite the fact that a handful of morally repugnant individuals are walking in and out unscathed, banking on incredible sums of cash.
When the Bunk Police first arrived at the Gorge for Sasquatch this past May, they spent more time arguing with event organizers than selling test kits. The festivals don’t like admitting that there’s drug use going on, and they don’t like that they’re not getting a cash cut. The Bunk Police barely scrape by from festival to festival, and though they sell the kits, no one’s getting rich. “I went into debt this summer doing the Bunk Police thing,” said Fisher, so when festivals try to prevent them from helping people they simply operate in a more covert way, reaching less people.
After Sasquatch, the Gorge held the electronic festival Paradiso at the end of June, headlined by Tiesto. The Bunk Police did not attend this time, and as reported by WPTV, an affiliate of NBC, there were over a hundred overdoses and one death, a 21-year-old man from a Seattle suburb. A Billboard piece cites the cause as Molly, “a generic name for a cocktail of drugs.” Apparently Molly no longer means MDMA, but rather whatever poisons your drug dealer can find for cheap, a far cry from any sort of ecstasy. When Phish played the Gorge at the end of July, the Bunk Police were asked to attend—the first time they’d ever worked in conjunction with event organizers.
At present, the state of our drug scene is remarkably sobering. You can still die of large amounts of pure Molly, especially when combined with heat and dehydration, and you can still have a bad trip on actual LSD, but these drugs have an established history of use and there have been people safely using them for decades. It has a profound impact on both your physical and mental experience, whether it’s your first or hundredth time, if you know what you have is legitimate. For someone who operates in a circle where people have a lot of experience with drugs, both good and bad, it’s easy to see the importance of being informed (especially as a female, and therefore a prime candidate for free substances).
I’m not saying that testing your drugs is going to make all future drug use safer, because like alcohol, drugs can be risky. (Phish front man Trey Anastasio could tell you a thing or two about the utter annihilation of addiction.) But a consumer base that’s testing their drugs is going to be smarter in all respects: they’ll keep hydrated, they won’t over-indulge, use heroin, or mix substances, and most importantly, they’ll feel comfortable asking questions. No matter how many times you’ve done a drug, it’s important to test what you plan on taking.
The last night of the Gorge, long after Phish had played, my friends were looking to buy some Ketamine. They didn’t want to get incredibly fucked up, they just wanted to blow a little and wobble back to their tents, a sure path to a deep slumber. Someone walked by and offered them some Ketamine. The dealer seemed drunk, not like he was on drugs, just incredibly wasted. He told them he had Molly and Ketamine, so they gave him $100 and bought a gram of the K. The guy was long gone by the time they got around to taking it: they’d been sold a gram of his Molly instead. In the end, for less than 50 cents a test, it seems incredible that anyone wouldn’t want to be sure of what they’re about to take.