This Group Is Doing What Music Festivals Refuse to Do to Help Fans Do Drugs Safely
"Yo, what color does it turn if it's bath salts?"
A pair of hands scrapes a fine white powder into a small test tube. The liquid at the bottom immediately turns yellow.
"Ew! That's fucking bath salts! He tried to feed me bath salts! Your fucking coworker..."
This particular exchange appears about halfway through What's In My Baggie?, a 2014 documentary exploring the work of the Bunk Police, a guerrilla drug testing group operating at major music festivals around the world. It's a conversation they hear far too often.
With an "official" presence at 10 festivals of 40,000+ attendees and independent representatives distributing their kits at many more, the Bunk Police sell test kits nearly identical to those used by law enforcement agencies. They're helping festival attendees find out exactly what they're putting in their bodies when they go to pop a molly or a tab of LSD. In doing so, they save lives and minds from the effects of potentially lethal additives. They move several thousand to several hundred test kits every week, depending on the season. According to the company's founder and CEO, Adam Auctor, they're fast closing in on becoming the largest distributor of testing kits in the world, and they've built this underground empire all while operating in hostile territory.
Music festivals and this country's law enforcement do not exactly embrace the group and its mission, but the Bunk Police sneak their kits onto festival grounds in any way they can. And as long as kids continue to consume unregulated drugs, we need them there.
The Bunk Police exists to solve a huge problem. "I think everybody really knows what really goes on at these events. It's no secret," Auctor told Mic. In recent years, there have been numerous highly publicized deaths from adulterated drugs at music festivals, but events have done little to address it, other than tighten their prohibition policies.
In 2013, two attendees died from overdosing on molly cut with methylone at Electric Zoo, which caused city officials to cancel the final day of the festival. Six died at 2014's Future Music Festival Asia, and another two deaths and 19 hospitalizations occurred at the Mad Decent Block Party in August 2014. Despite the added security measures many festivals have taken, "there is no question that the number of deaths attributable to controlled substances is on the rise," according to Billboard's Harley Brown.
Despite these dangers, kids continue to experiment. The Bunk Police are dealing with this reality head-on, helping reduce the harm and educate any and all possible consumers.
"We're not promoting drug use. We're making it safer for the people that choose to participate," Auctor told Mic. "Beyond that, many of the people that use our test kits end up finding out that they're taking a substance completely different from what they had intended. I would even say in most cases, people take a big step back from their drug use and kind of reconsider what they're doing. To some extent, I would say we're curbing drug use at these events, as long as we're able to explain ourselves and operate freely."
In nearly half of the tests the Bunk Police observe, they find adulterants. "That is an incredibly conservative estimate," Auctor told Mic. Adulteration rates usually range between 70% and 90%, and Auctor sees a complete replacement of the substance in "anywhere from 30% to 40%, sometimes close to 50% — it all depends on where we are." Bonnaroo is one of the worst, followed by festivals in the Northeast in New York and Connecticut.
The Bunk Police is having a major impact. At those festivals that allow the Bunk Police to operate freely, Auctor has seen a complete turnaround. At a festival that lets the Bunk Police set up their tent in the middle of everything (Auctor refuses to name which one), Auctor has watched the adulteration rate plummet. "In fact, this year we were able to distribute at such an effective level that we had people commenting that there were more test kits there than actual drugs, which I really take pride in," he said. "It shows that market is fully saturated and things are improving."
However, most festivals do not allow the Bunk Police to operate this freely. The group hasn't vended openly at Coachella in three years, and won't at Bonnaroo after the events of this year. In the past at Bonnaroo, security has turned a blind eye and allowed the group to sell kits through Sunday, before "ceremoniously shutting us down," as Auctor said. However, this year "instead of treating us with respect as they had before, they treated us like criminals, like common drug dealers." Auctor also related the full story in detail a post on Reddit's /r/Bonnaroo. The raid resulted in about 500 test kits confiscated — worth around $12,500 at retail value.
A major hit. But not one that will alter or derail the group's mission in any way. The reason why festivals refuse to acknowledge the necessity of services like the Bunk Police's has to do with a national law called the RAVE Act (Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act), which Joe Biden proposed in 2002 and passed under the name Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act in 2003. It essentially allows the government to prosecute businesses or people that "knowingly" allow drug use on their premises. By permitting an organization such as the Bunk Police to sell testing kits, festivals could fall into this gray prosecution area.
But by preventing information and safety precautions from getting to young people, the RAVE Act "harms the very people it's meant to help," as the American Civil Liberties Union argued. A 2014 study out of the University of Delaware confirmed the extent of that harm. Through a series of investigations and interviews, the study found that the RAVE Act discouraged many promoters from taking even the most basic safety precautions, such as having free bottled water on hand, for fear they could be interpreted as signs that the events condoned drug use.
"Of course, we all know that drug checking and other harm reduction services do not encourage drug use," said Emanuel Sferios, founder of Dancesafe, as quoted by Auctor in a Reddit AMA. "However, here in the U.S. we have a very ideological drug war culture, and the fear is enough to prevent most festival promoters from allowing it."
Festivals continue to insist their festivals are "drug-free," though Bonnaroo and Coachella are anything but that. The longer festivals deny it, the longer they keep their attendees at risk. Auctor believes the RAVE Act needs to be modified to allow for exceptions such as educational materials and drug testing. But any of these changes are still another "five to seven to 10" years off. Until then, the Bunk Police are the only way to reduce the harm our country's black market exacts.
"We will continue doing exactly what we have been doing. We will take our test kits and put them in black duffle bags and throw them over fences in the middle of the night," he said to Mic. "Or bribe food truck vendors to put them under their produce. We will do literally whatever it takes. They do save lives, and beyond that, they save minds, and they also educate on a massive level."
Until laws change and the drug war in this country dissipates — as it has to great effect in Portugal — we need the Bunk Police. The group's website invites interested parties to join its street team either in distributing test kits or simply spreading knowledge to those that need it. And there are numerous petitions online calling for amendments to the RAVE Act. Bringing honesty to the black market is no easy mission, but with the help of every concerned music fan, the Bunk Police will prevail.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that law enforcement confiscated of the Bunk Police's 5,000 test kits at this year's Bonnaroo. Security — not law enforcement — confiscated 500 test kits, which contained 5,000 individual tests. These had a retail value of $12,500 and did not result in an equivalent loss for the company.