While everyone knows that drugs are flying around music festivals as much as BO and fireworks, the frightening truth is that most people have no idea what they are taking. Thanks to the proliferation of research chemicals and websites for easy access, the drug market is changing at a breakneck speed. The days when you could buy a sheet of psychedelics or a few pills from a dealer and assume you'll be safe are long gone—in fact, you'd be lucky if those brown crystals contain any MDMA at all.
With drug-related deaths at music festivals dominating headlines every summer, Adam Auctor, the founder of The Bunk Police, wants to keep people informed with an effective tool: drug testing kits. But here's the kicker: festivals want nothing to do with him and his organization, and in recent months, Auctor has lost thousands of dollars from police confiscations, faced the threat of prison time, and been forced to conduct secret, illegal research—all in the name of helping drug users stay safe.
Other organizations involved in harm reduction and drug testing have faced the same problems. Just this year at Electric Forest, DanceSafe was asked by the festival's organizer, Madison House Presents, to cease their operations. They had operated freely at the festival for five years prior. Still, Auctor views himself and the rest of his Bunk Police crew as a sort of renegade vigilantes who will do whatever it takes to get their kits in the hands of users.
Auctor was inspired to start The Bunk Police after witnessing drug use at one of his first festivals. After doing research online, he came across a kit for police to test substances and realized it could be used by consumers as well. Auctor soon would hit 22 festivals, setting up booths to share information with guests, as well as selling his kits, which now retail for around $20 a pop.
Quickly he discovered that the MDMA being passed around was usually anything but. "Most of [the MDMA] out there was cathinone (or bath salts), which at the time weren't scheduled by the DEA. People were buying it legally and selling it everywhere," says Auctor, who took some time to talk to THUMP at this year's Electric Forest festival in Rothbury, Michigan.
At first, Auctor accepted donations but sold the kits for free. "By the end of that first summer I had depleted all of my funds and was finishing up my business degree. My GPA was great, but by that time I realized this is what I wanted to do with my life. I dropped out of school and used the last $9,000 of my student loans to Kickstart Bunk Police." That following year was rough—lots of couch-sleeping and ramen eating—but over the last four years, Bunk Police has turned into one of the largest test-kit suppliers not only in the US, but the world.
While Auctor's outfit is currently bigger than ever before, the issues they, and groups like them, are encountering at festivals are prevalent and often devastating.
"We've been going for about five years now and things have become incrementally stricter as festivals are becoming more and more corporate," he says. "It seems like layers involved are trying to reduce liabilities in every way possible."
In a legal sense, drug testing kits are in a bit of a legal grey area for civilians, considered by some as drug paraphernalia, or the very least promoting of drug use. Much of this is a result of legislation like the RAVE Act ("Reducing American's Vulnerability to Ecstasy"), which was introduced by Vice President (then senator) Joe Biden in 2002, and passed by Congress in 2003. Because of this, law enforcement is able to prosecute events organizers if they consider them to maintain a "drug involved premises." This legislation is what's causing festivals to distance themselves to anything even remotely drug related.
The Rave Act has resulted in the Bunk Police resorting to extreme measures just to get their kits into festivals, including throwing duffle bags over fences in the middle of the night and bribing food truck vendors to put it under their food.
This year at Bonnaroo—where Bunk Police has been allowed to distribute kits for the last four years—police officers raided their tents and confiscated 500 test kits, walkie talkies, fliers, and stickers. "I guess they kind of have it in the back of their minds that we're selling drugs in our tents," Auctor says. "After talking to them and explaining what we were trying to accomplish, they let us stay under the pretense we wouldn't sell or promote the test kits at all." Things turned sour at the festival's end when organizers turned over the entirety of their confiscated product to the local sheriff's department. "They told me I had to go [to the police station], show them ID, and have a 'discussion,' in order to pick up the stuff. To me, that sounded like a great way to get arrested."
Not only could Auctor have been arrested for illegal vending, but due to grey areas in legislation around paraphernalia laws, he could be charged with massive distribution of paraphilia, leading to months in prison. A similar punishment was slapped on Tommy Chong in 2003, who served nine months in prison for selling bongs. "I made the decision not to turn myself in, and take it as a loss," says Auctor. "It's absolutely worth the risk. I've been willing to go to prison for this from the beginning."
The Bonnaroo fiasco was financially devastating, amounting to $12,500 in lost test kits. Auctor is frustrated that his unused kits are just sitting with the sheriff's department: "This stuff isn't okay, we need to have a national discussion about this."
Regardless of both law enforcement and festival-organizers' tightening grasp, Auctor's plans for the future are ambitious. "Over the last two years, we've been secretly conducting research, collecting every single substance on the market, about 220 forms of narcotics in pure form—heroin, MDMA, everything. We send them out to a government run facility in Spain where they'll test the drugs for you." As a result of their research in Spain, Bunk Police is filming short videos of test reactions that they can use not only for the three test kits that they currently offer, but for seven more that they are developing. "Within the next month we're releasing all of these videos for free on YouTube. We have 3,500 video not only for our reagent spot-testing kits, but something else we are developing called a separation-test kit, which is based on thin-layer chromatography. Essentially this is a system that allows the you to separate and identify each component in your test. We're also opening anonymous send-ins to Spain, so anyone, anywhere in the world would be able to send in their substance and have it evaluated," he says.
Sending drugs in the mail to Europe is indeed legally precarious, but again, that's not stopping Auctor. "It's illegal, but we have a set of instructions. People leave off their return address and we include a code that indicates that people have paid for the test. It's completely anonymous," he says. "The lab's test get everything down to the bare bones. They'll tell you exactly how many micrograms are in that sample, how much has degraded, even which isomers are included." Confusion terminology to most, but essentially, Auctor is creating ways for users to know exactly what's in their drugs like no one has before. "We're bringing honestly to the black market in the best way we can."
Drug use shows no sign of slowing down at festivals, along with its the deceptive marketing and sale to attendees. It's pretty clear as forms of oblivious consumption remain a plague, Auctor's Bunk Police will remain on the frontlines, doing whatever they can to reduce harm. "I have this sort of innate drive to help people and improve festival culture. I've seen so many terrible things happen to people at events; people die, people run their bodies and minds, and have years of lasting effects from using these substances… [festival-goers] just aren't aware what's going on most of the time."
"It's also a lot better than working a desk job," he laughs.
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