Everything was going well during Adam Auctor's first 36 hours at this year's Bonnaroo. The festivalgoers were eager for his wares, and business was brisk. But eventually he noticed a suspicious-looking group. They looked like a lot of other people at the festival, wearing weed and reggae T-shirts, but something seemed off, he remembers. And, sure enough, when they descended upon him, he discovered they were undercover Bonnaroo security guards. They stood over him, forcing him to pack up his stuff and leave. Before he left, they snapped a photo of him with his ID so they'd know if he returned. (The organizers of Bonnaroo did not respond to a request for comment.)
Despite how his ejection played out, Auctor—a pseudonym—is not a drug dealer. He is the founder of the Bunk Police, a company that sells substance-testing kits to some of the hundreds of thousands of people that attend music festivals every summer. His kits help his customers determine if their drugs—their molly, their K, their L—are what they're supposed to be, or if they're bunk. The tests are necessary because often the drugs that people sneak into festivals or buy from a solicitous festival dealer are something different than advertised, which can lead to bad trips, dangerous dosages, or even death. But drugs—even at Bonnaroo—are still illegal, and, in festival promoters' eyes, Auctor's presence is a tacit admission of unlawful activity. Frequently, their solution is simply to ban him. So he and his team sneak into festivals around the country, risking arrest (some states have drug paraphernalia laws prohibiting test kits) to help keep the thousands of drug-taking festival attendees safe.
A few weeks after Bonnaroo, Auctor is at the Electric Forest festival in Rothbury, Michigan. Tall and tanned from never wearing sunscreen at these things, he doesn't look like a swashbuckling drug expert who can identify DMT by its smell (if it smells gross, like rubber, it's probably authentic). He's 33, a little older and a lot calmer than his excited customers, and he dresses plainly, eschewing the fur vests, psychedelic T-shirts, and necklaces with doll-sized spoons for ketamine or cocaine that many of his customers favor. When he started the Bunk Police in 2011, he was one of them. "Now," he says, "I'm definitely not."
Today, he has set up his standard booth steps from the official festival grounds: a pink tent made from a faded British military parachute rigged up with some PVC pipe and crowned with a large Bunk Police sign so people can spot him from a distance. Inside the tent, where it's always about 10 degrees hotter than outside, there's a table with his products. One test for detecting ecstasy and common adulterants; one for ketamine and coke; one for LSD, DMT, and mushrooms. He even has a value pack of eight kits for more intrepid patrons. Each kit comes with a plastic test tube, a bottle of reagent liquid, and a booklet for interpreting the test results.
Auctor also sells the kits online, and while he didn't give specifics about how profitable the Bunk Police is, he says that online sales of the kits are what sustains the business. Festivals are a good place for spreading the word about his offerings, but he sometimes loses money at them because he ends up giving so many tests away for free. The Bunk Police is Auctor's full-time job. When he's not at festivals, he's usually doing research and development for the business, whether that means working with scientists in Europe to develop the new tests or attending smoke-shop trade shows to convince them to stock them.
This weekend, Auctor is particularly anxious. In addition to the usual pressures of operating in a legal gray area, a new enemy has emerged in the last few years: fentanyl. His kits test for hundreds of adulterants, but fentanyl is the most dangerous. At 80 to 100 times the strength of morphine, the synthetic opioid produces an intense, euphoric high, and, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, a deadly dose is just two milligrams—the weight of a few grains of salt.
If Auctor gets kicked out, festivalgoers will have no way of knowing if their coke is cut with fentanyl—or meth, lidocaine, or caffeine. Bonnaroo scared him; at any moment, security could duck into his tent and eject him. He's been going to Electric Forest for years, and the festival had always ignored him, tacitly allowing him to operate. The vibe changed in 2016 though, when festival officials made DanceSafe—a similarly minded harm reduction non-profit that offers drug testing as well as water, condoms, earplugs, and drug information—take down its booth early in the festival, not even allowing it to operate sans drug testing. Last year, Auctor was thrown out of the festival both weekends. Now, he's on high alert.
Auctor grew up as a sheltered Eagle Scout in Texas. When his friends started experimenting with drugs, he did his research—and noticed that their experiences didn't always match the drug's expected effects. He found he could purchase substance testing kits from a police supply website and brought some to one of his first festivals, where he discovered just how impure many of the drugs were. This was during his last semester of college, when he was set to graduate with a marketing degree. He dropped out, took the $9,000 left over from his student loans, and started the Bunk Police.
At the time, DanceSafe had been around for more than a decade. Now, the two groups work together. DanceSafe, which Auctor has referred to as the Bunk Police's "wise and responsible older sister," gets official permission from festivals and is allowed to set up inside the grounds. Bunk Police tries to reach as many people as it can, whether or not it's invited. Members crisscross the country, sneaking into as many festivals as possible through a variety of methods—tossing duffel bags over fences, bribing food vendors—and deal with any opposition as it happens.
"I love his 'we don’t ask permission we just go do it' model. As a 501(c)(3) with federal non-profit status, [and a] board of directors, I have to behave in a slightly different way," says Mitchell Gomez, DanceSafe's executive director. "I really like that he's out there. No matter what a promoter wants, no matter what the law enforcement says, he's out there just providing test kits."
Any opposition the Bunk Police face usually doesn't come from law enforcement or medics, who are usually supportive of the mission, Auctor says. Instead, it comes from a festival's private security—like Bonnaroo's undercover team. There is good reason for festival promoters to fear the legal ramifications of operating a venue where drugs are sold. The Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003 punishes anyone who profits from a place "for the purpose of manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance." And the DEA has proven it's not afraid to enforce the act. In 2010, DEA agents seized a Southern Missouri site called Camp Zoe, known for an annual jam-band festival called Schwagstock, and jailed its owner for not stopping the sale and use of drugs on the property. Promoters are worried about the same thing happening to them. In a 2014 Reddit post, Pasquale Rotella, the head of Insomniac, the company behind Electric Forest and other festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival, responded to a request for harm reduction services at his events. "Unfortunately some people view partnering with DanceSafe as endorsing drug use rather than keeping people safe, and that can prevent producers from getting locations and organizing events," he wrote. (Insomniac didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.)
That's not good enough, say Auctor and DanceSafe. Auctor says he doesn't know of anyone who's ever been punished with a RAVE Act charge for offering harm reduction services. People are dying at these festivals. Sometimes it's from the heat and dehydration. Other times, it's because of adulterated drugs. Large music festivals are part of a multibillion-dollar industry. It has the clout to promote harm reduction if its leaders want to.
Even if they don't allow drug testing, the least festivals can do is offer drug education, Gomez says. "Other non-profits use our cards in middle schools," he says. "If you're being less progressive on drug issues than a rural Kentucky middle school, maybe throwing raves isn't the industry you should be involved in."
And festivalgoers want these groups at their events. Thanks to the presence of the Bunk Police and DanceSafe at festivals over the last decades, many attendees now think test kits are as much a necessity as water and glitter.
When Auctor opens up shop at Electric Forest on Thursday morning, he's immediately inundated with customers. Some are nervous. When Auctor asks one customer a pleasant tone what they'll be testing today, there's a half-second pause before they answer: "Uh, shrooms and LSD." Well, in that case you'll want the Ehrlich, Auctor responds, over an unending soundtrack of bass-heavy electronic music. The kit is 30 bucks, provides up to 100 uses, and lasts around a year. Auctor recommends keeping it as cold as possible by storing it in a cooler or under a car during the festival. Other customers know exactly what they want, bouncing in to ask for certain kits by name. Over the weekend, people will show him test tubes, asking him to interpret their results. Their substance turned purple. But is it the dark, almost blackish purple of an ecstasy result? Or is it the lighter purple that signals the presence of heroin? Some start pulling baggies of powders out of their wallets: Can't Auctor just test for them?
His first year at Electric Forest, Auctor let people test their drugs at his tent. It was a bad idea, leading to what he dubbed a "drug bazaar," and making him an ideal target for a possession charge. But he offers to do some testing for me, to show me what's out there. We start tromping around the endless rows of campsites, ducking around tents and tapestries. "What's going on, ya'll," Auctor says, introducing himself and asking if there's anything they need tested. Virtually everyone has heard of the Bunk Police, and many are awed by Auctor's presence. People offer him scrambled eggs, whip its (both of which he declines), and gulps of boxed wine (which he accepts.) A twentysomething tells Auctor that he's his hero.
We meet a group of around 20 friends from the Detroit area, armed with everything from Adderall to opium. They huddle around Auctor as he starts testing their drugs, eager to see the results. He tests the coke they've been taking for months. Turns out, there's no cocaine in it at all. Instead it's 2-FMA, a methamphetamine.
"Hey, sass guy!" someone from the group yells as a dealer walks by. Since Auctor is testing their stuff, they decide to buy some sass (MDA). Twenty a piece, says the dealer. "This stuff came all the way from the Netherlands and is 100 percent, nothing but MDA," he tells them in a thick Southern drawl. He relaxes into a camping chair, smug as he watches Auctor begin the test. He's telling the truth. The pills are MDA. "I'll take two," someone says. Afterward, the dealer shakes Auctor's hand and tells him in an earnest tone how happy he is that the Bunk Police exists. He hates when dealers sell bunk.
Like nearly everyone we meet, even the drug dealers are thankful for the Bunk Police. Nobody wants to accidentally take something like 4-FMA or 25I-NBOMe (a dangerously potent synthetic hallucinogen), some of the most common adulterants found through the Bunk Police's kits.
When Auctor started the Bunk Police, he realized there was a deluge of research chemicals invading the recreational drug market. They're created in laboratories to mimic existing drugs, but with tiny tweaks to their structure, making them legal to sell and often impossible to detect until the DEA and drug test manufacturers catch up to them. And since they're new, people don't know their dangers, or what amounts to a safe dosage. The Internet makes these compounds easy to buy and sell, and Auctor estimates that, at one point, there was a new research chemical entering the market every week. Now, he works with scientists in Europe to keep his tests current with the latest research chemicals. What his kits do, more than anything, is empower people to make an informed choice: If you know that there's anything other than ecstasy in your ecstasy, do you still want to take it?
A few years ago, Kevin, a 26-year-old from Chicago, took drugs at a concert. The guy he got it from said it was molly (ecstasy), but, instead, it was bath salts. It triggered an out-of-body experience, he says, and, for hours, he had lockjaw, barely able to open his mouth. "I was sucking cream out of a Twinkie to eat something," he says. The experience made him wary. "Ever since, I've never fucked with something without testing it."
Stories like Kevin's are all too common: DanceSafe tested over 500 samples of substances sold as ecstasy between 2010 and 2015. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine analyzed the data in 2017, and found that only 60 percent had any MDMA at all. The majority contained meth and bath salts, like the kind Kevin took. That same study also found that testing led to safer behavior. People were "significantly less likely" to take something if they found it was adulterated. "The evidence suggests that certainly testing is far better than not," says Andrew Groves, a criminologist and researcher at Australia's Deakin University who's also researched the topic. And it benefits the entire drug market, not just the tester. "Drug dealers and manufacturers are forced to become more accountable because they know that, with greater testing, there's greater likelihood that any dodgy substances will be identified," Groves says. "It means that they're more likely to engage in better practices."
And with the rise of fentanyl, health departments and advocacy groups across the country, in cities like Philadelphia, Columbus, and San Francisco, are also turning to drug testing, distributing free fentanyl tests to stop overdose deaths. (The Bunk Police recently sold 5,000 of its fentanyl tests to a Native American reservation in Oklahoma.)
On Friday, a girl in sweats comes into the tent. "I just wanted to let you know that, because of your kit, I didn't end up buying heroin in cocaine," she tells Auctor. She tested a dealer's supply, only for it to turn "mucus green." "High five for not doing heroin," Auctor says. Now, she says, she's going to have a "clean weekend."
Experiences like that are why Acutor keeps running the Bunk Police. Electric Forest is his sixth festival this year, and he's got six more to go. It's exhausting, and although the festivals aren't very profitable for him, he's still driven by his Eagle Scout credo to do a good turn daily. What would the kids do without him?
What's Joe Got to Do With It?
In 2002, Joe Biden, then a Democratic senator from Delaware, proposed a bill that he thought would be uncontroversial. It expanded what's referred to as the federal "crack house laws," which target anyone who maintains a space for drug use. Biden's law targeted raves and other musical festivals by expanding the law to include those who, even temporarily, owned such a space—such as rented venues and campgrounds for events like Electric Forest or Coachella. In case his target wasn't clear enough, the bill was dubbed the Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act, or the RAVE Act. In the bill's original language, Biden included things like glow sticks, pacifiers, and chill-out rooms as examples of the way "many rave promoters facilitate and profit from flagrant drug use."
Ravers were furious. They held protest raves across the country and collected signatures to lobby against Biden's bill. But, slightly tweaked and renamed the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, it was passed in 2003 as a rider to the child safety law that also created the Amber Alert system.
DanceSafe's Mitchell Gomez, a veteran of the rave scene, agrees that some of those early raves were unsafe spaces that mainly existed for promoters to sell drugs. But now he and other harm reduction advocates argue that all the law does is keep promoters from offering potentially life-saving amenities like drug testing, free water, and information on how to safely use drugs. "It was almost enough that I didn't vote for [Barack] Obama, the fact that Biden was his VP," Gomez says. "I feel that strongly about the dangers of the RAVE Act."
The Drugs Hiding in Your Drugs
Here's an introduction to some of the most common adulterants Auctor's tests have turned up:
- Synthetic cathinones: Commonly referred to as "bath salts," a lot of people end up taking cathinones when they think they're taking ecstasy. They're a synthetic version of the alkaloid found in the khat plant, native to many East African and Middle Eastern countries. In Yemen and several east African nations, it's common for people chew khat leaves for a mild high.
- 4-FMA: 4-Fluoromethamphetamine and a handful of similar fluorinated amphetamines (like 2-FMA and 4-FA) are the other common substance sold as ecstasy. Like bath salts, they've become more common in the United States as adulterated or fake ecstasy has proliferated in the last decade.
- 25I-NBOMe: A German chemist working on his dissertation discovered this hallucinogen in 2003. It's often sold as LSD, but it also has stimulating, amphetamine-like effects. And, unlike LSD, it can be deadly, and its effects can sometimes last for days. At Electric Forest, a group of concerned friends sought Auctor's advice. Their friend took 25I thinking it was acid on Thursday, and on Saturday she was still high.
- Fentanyl: The narcotic was originally cut into other opioids or heroin—stronger stuff than most festivalgoers are taking. But recently it's been creeping into cocaine, making it a greater threat to the festival scene.