A crew have made a documentary that aims to highlight the rise in replaced substances at festivals.
People have been mixing drugs for years. The problem, though, is that it's hard to tell if the dealer has cut the MDMA with mephedrone, caffeine tablets, or some weird looking glass he found on the floor. You just keep buying the same ambiguous shit. Ringing around at ten-minute intervals late Friday night. Spending your week's wages on whatever is handed over by a guy known only on first name basis.
A lot of people enjoy the game. But the deregulated market—and the fact that synthetic substances have higher profit margins—means popular drugs can easily be replaced with a number of psychoactive and potentially dangerous substances.
Drug-related deaths at festivals have become commonplace over the past few years. In an attempt to prevent things like this happening, an organization called The Bunk Police hit up a few festivals, hoping to give festival-goers an insight into what they're taking by handing out test-kits. Except the festivals wouldn't let them in. They denied their guests the opportunity to understand whether they were going to be tripping on MDMA or rat poison all weekend.
That's when the What's In My Baggie crew decided to make a documentary. A lot of young people use drugs. England's Bestival seized £25,000 worth of the things this year. Clearly the law is irrelevant—teenagers will keep taking drugs, and there should be measures in place to ensure festival-goers can stay safe. I called up Jeff Chambers, from the documentary team, to talk about why there needs to be an honest approach in both the positive and negative attitudes toward recreational use.
Noisey: You guys have zero documentary experience. You ran into the Bunk Police at a festival, saw a girl fitting after taking something, and decided to make the film. But where did the motivation come from?
Jeff Chambers: We were really passionate about the issue. We ran into the Bunk Police at Bonnaroo in 2012 and were really taken back by how many people were coming up to the testing tent with fake drugs. Most people were saying they got bath salts because they thought they were buying molly; weird research chemicals because they thought they were buying LSD.
Nobody was (A) allowing the test kits to be sold in the festival or (B) recognizing the fact that this is a prominent issue that needs to be addressed. So, we decided that we were going to hit the road with The Bunk Police and go to the all the music festivals they go to—and film them distributing the test kits at the festival.
How did you hear about the Bunk Police?
We hadn’t heard about them before. I bought what I thought was LSD at Bonnaroo in 2012 and it turned out to be a research chemical called 25I-NBOMe. I took two hits in the morning because the guy told me it was fairly weak stuff. But within 20 minutes I was having the most intense visual experience of my life—I could barely see ten feet in front of me.
Three hours into that—one of our neighbours told us that someone around the corner was selling test kits to let you know what drugs you had. We met The Bunk Police and, while tripping for 24 hours, we periodically went back and had more questions for him. How he got started, why the festivals won’t let him sell kits at the festivals, that sort of thing.
Why don’t they let him sell test kits at the festivals? It seems strange that the festivals are denying their guests the opportunity to be more safe—especially when people are dying from taking substances each summer.
It’s because of a piece of legislation passed in 2003 by, I believe, Vice President Joe Biden. It’s called the Rave Act and it says that venue owners and concert promoters aren’t allowed to have drugs taken at their festival because it will be interpreted as them providing a venue for drug use. By allowing test kits to be sold they’re acknowledging that there’s drug use and not taking a preventative measure, but a harm-reduction measure.
That’s strange though. At festivals you have legal-high vendors, head-shops selling bongs and grinders—which suggests the festivals acknowledge that drugs exist at their events.
At Bonnaroo they have people selling pipes, grinders, bongs, whatever. No one is selling the legal high stuff. But yeah, its strange they’ll allow that to happen but won’t allow something that can really save lives to be sold at their festival.
What festivals did you visit?
We went to Sasquatch in Washington, Wakarusa in Arkansa, Bonnaroo in Tenessee, Firefly in Delaware, Electric Forest in Michigan, and Lightning in a Bottle in Southern California.
The documentary starts with a narrator who states that each time he tested for Molly, 100 percent of the time, it turned out to be bath salts. What’s the danger with mistaking bath salts and MDMA?
The term bath salts is a blanket term for research chemicals known as synthetic cathinones. The effects that is has on your body can be similar to those of MDMA but since it’s a less-researched chemical most people don’t know the proper dosage or measures to take to stay hydrated and keep body-heat down. A lot of unknown variables come into play.
The UK equivalent is mephedrone, right? It's started to feel like a lot of MDMA going around is mostly plant food.
Right. And with something that’s a little white powder it’s very difficult to distinguish if you have pure MDMA or MDMA that’s cut with something, or something that’s been misrepresented entirely.
What are some of the worst substances you came across?
A handful of times the test kit reaction couldn’t show you what was in there. Sometimes it wouldn’t react at all, you could have gotten a bag of table salt or something else fairly benign. Or you could get one of the 250 new drugs that’s been discovered since 2009 and has no color reaction to distinguish what it is. We saw synthetic cathinones being sold as MDMA, a wide-variety of research chemicals sold as LSD—like 25I-NBOMe or 25B-NBOMe. We saw heroin cut with fentanyl—a very powerful opiate given to cancer patients. Pretty much every sample of cocaine we tested was something else, usually amphetamine or methamphetamine. We saw ketamine replaced with methoxphenidine, which is more of a PCP derivative.
The testing kits are a really reliable way to avoid taking something dangerous. Why do you think the government tries to stop The Bunk Police.
You know, it’s a history of drug policy that’s been more a criminalization and prohibition approach as opposed to a harm-reduction and pro-active approach. Nobody wants to admit that drug use is even prevalent—let alone take safe measures for it.
With sex education we tell our kids the safest way to not get an STD or get pregnant is to be abstinent, but, let’s be realistic and give you the proper tools to do it safely. The approach with drug education in this country is the complete opposite.
If festivals can’t let the Bunk Police sell kits on site because of the law, how should they better educate their guests about drug-use?
Honestly, they should distribute test kits. If not by a licenced venue like The Bunk Police or Dance Safe but distributing them at the medical tents themselves. If you read the handbooks at most festivals, they have a no-judgement policy when it comes to telling a medical official—“I’ve taken this drug. I am having an adverse reaction”. They aren’t going to call the police or your parents, they just want to know what you’ve taken so they can help you. If they’re going to take that pro-active approach, why not take it one step further and actually distribute the test kits.
I agree. People should be given the opportunity to understand what they’re putting in their body.
Hell, not to be biased but if they want to help get the message out, then air our documentary at the festival. If they can’t put the test kits into people’s hands then at least have people there that can spread the education and awareness.
Watch the full What's In My Baggie documentary here.
This piece has been edited to reflect that ketamine was cut with methoxphenidine, not fentanyl.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanBassil