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Saving the world one test kit at a time: Chronicling Bunk Police’s Bonnaroo protest & next stop at Electric Forest [INTERVIEW]

Live Nation’s Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival officially came to a close this past weekend, but not without some disappointing news. A 27-year-old male was found unresponsive in his campsite and officially declared dead at a nearby hospital. While the cause of death has not yet been determined, and the man had a history of medical problems, the likelihood of a drug-related fatality has not yet been ruled out.

According to a Canadian study conducted a few years back, drug and alcohol-related deaths accounted for 75 percent of all non-traumatic music festival deaths between 1999 and 2014, although that number sinks to 13 percent of all reported music festival deaths. The findings analyzed causes of death globally, but the sobering statistic raises ongoing concerns over anti-drug legislation in the US. While the war of drugs began long ago in America’s history, with a reboot in the Reagan years, the main concern nowadays is the federal legislation fallout from the RAVE Act.

Proposed by then-Senator Joe Biden in 2002, the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act (or RAVE Act) was passed in 2003 as the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act. The bill reached approval in the House and Senate as an attachment to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s child abduction-related AMBER Alert.

joe biden

I think this is a local problem,” said Biden about rave-related events in a Senate hearing. “If I were governor of my state or the mayor of my town, I would be passing new ordinances relating to stiff criminal penalties for anyone who holds a rave, the promoter, the guy who owns the building, I would put the son of a gun in jail, I would change the law.”

Nowadays, the legislation essentially puts festival organizers between a rock and a hard place because of insurance companies. In order for organizers to take out insurance policies to cover a range of issues — from structural collapses and inclement weather to crowd stampedes and accidental death and dismemberment — there are often times clauses in place that prevent the presence of harm reduction organizations on site.

David Boyle, contingency class underwriter for Argo Insurance, cites countless reasons why there is a huge risk factor involved with providing music festivals with insurance, with drugs and alcohol being at the top of the list. Not to mention, “all of the shenanigans you might expect when those substances are free-flowing,” according to a Risk & Insurance report. 

The logic behind the insurance requirement stems from outdated “Just Say No” rhetoric: that the presence of organizations like Bunk Police, Dance Safe, and others encourage the use of illicit drug use and therefore present a liability to the festival. They call this “risk reduction,” which may sound pretty backward when one is educated on what these companies actually do.

The primary intention [of harm reduction] is to minimize the harmful effects that drugs can have on people who use them, particularly those who are uneducated about the substances they consume,” says the Drug Policy Alliance. “This involves providing educational materials about drug effects, distributing kits for substance testing, engaging in counseling, and other methods.”

The logic behind big box live music corporations are even more glaring because they remain covered for overdose deaths when they ban the presence of harm reduction. At the end of the day, what companies like Live Nation and AEG care about is profit margin, not human lives, and that’s what makes them so easily villainized. It’s a numbers game, but in dollars, not death toll count.

“It should be up to them [Live Nation] to go about spearheading the movement to change these laws in Washington,” says founder and CEO of Bunk Police, Adam Auctor. “They’re the ones who are heavily affected. They’re the ones that are throwing these huge events where people are dying.”

You get past the underwriting, you get past the insurance, you get past everything else … to me, it’s all about safety,” commented Peter Tempkins, the Managing Director of Entertainment at HUB International, one of the country’s leading insurance brokerage firms in risk-management.

So what public safety essentially boils down to is a battle over words — between “zero tolerance” and “harm reduction” — and insurance providers are winning out. Why? Because, one, they have the RAVE Act to stand behind, and, two, they dish out all the money when things go awry.

When asked about whether insurance companies were to blame for the black-listing of harm reduction programs, Auctor said he didn’t know whether that was the case. Auctor can’t even get past the gatekeepers at large-scale live music conglomerates like Bonnaroo’s parent company, Live Nation. “We’re not able to get any answers from these people on why they’re making these decisions.”It all boils down to image for them,” Auctor continues, “So they can say, ‘Oh there are no drugs here.’ But there’s a bunch of lights and lasers and music in a big field… of course there’s going to be drugs.”

On the other side of the bunker are not-for-profit “harm reduction” companies whose very ethos and ethics are dripping with activist sentiment. Moreover, their various missions contradict what legislation and media are claiming they say to promote. As a result, Bunk Police and others’ grassroots organizations have gone underfunded and unreported because of the “black sheep” identity that’s been slapped on them in the public eye.

“Alcohol used to have the same stigma,” says Auctor. “There’s a ‘no tolerance’ policy at first. Like the condoms and abstinence-only education debate. When we all know giving out condoms is beneficial because people are going to do it anyway.”

Regardless, Bunk Police has been on the front lines in the music festival community since 2011, where they’ve been passing out drug test kits, providing brochures on responsible drug use, and even offering to test substances on-site at events that allow their presence. Contrary to the shady drug promoter persona that has become their public image, in large part due to misguided legislation and media scare tactics, these are real grassroots activists who are fighting a misguided law enacted at the federal level. They are mothers and fathers who’ve lost children. They are brothers and sisters of the fallen. They are activists who’ve seen the ugly side of overdose and want to make a stand for change.

So why are these people, despite coming face to face with overdose death, sitting on the harm reduction side of the trenches? Because they’ve seen zero tolerance policies fail their loved ones at the cost of a life.

They are taking huge personal risks as a result too, by sneaking in drug test kits that are often confiscated as drug paraphernalia, by being a team of action-based progressives whose very presence is considered illegal at music festivals, by fighting an Amerian drug epidemic fueled by taxpayer dollars. Too long have they been forced to operate in the shadows.

But organizations like the Bunk Police are saying, “no more.” This past weekend, on the opening days of Bonnaroo, founder Adam Auctor organized a visible political protest at the festival’s front gates.

Bonnaroo is one of the events that we can have the most impact on and yet one of the ones where were persecuted the most.” – Adam Auctor

Auctor says the march drew in over 150 people on Bonnaroo’s opening day, while bottlenecked traffic lines poured into the security car search lines. The Bunk Police effectively had a sea of overlookers ranging in the hundreds of thousands.

“We supplied signs for everybody and had some call-backs that we did as we marched around in a circle with the signs,” he continues. “Meanwhile, security staff was circling around in golf carts with frowney faces. They couldn’t really do anything because test kits are federally legal. That was kind of the idea that we had was to force a situation and bring awareness that test kits are just as allowed in these places.”

Now it’s important to remember that while test kits are federally legal, they are considered illegal in 35 states, including Tennessee and Michigan, home to two of summer’s largest music festivals.

“But the last thing we want is for people to be afraid,” Auctor says. “Even though test kits are illegal, they are a ticketed [misdemeanor] offense. People driving to Bonnaroo and Electric Forest are getting charged with paraphernalia who are trying to be responsible and accountable about their friends and their own drug use.”

Auctor explains that in his own experience, the police have actually been behind his cause, even in conservative rural areas. “I’ve been pulled over with thousands of test kits and officers,” he explains. “They have let me go every time because I’m able to make them understand what they’re for and how they’re exactly what the police force uses them for.

When asked why the Bunk Police had their sights sets on Bonnaroo as a place of protest, Auctor says it’s because it’s a “high profile event,” calling it the “Coachella of the South.” Also, he targets Bonnaroo because The Bunk Police has been operating there for years untouched and unscathed — that is, until Live Nation bought a majority share.

“It pissed me off them throwing us out several years in a row,” Auctor continued. “Years before, there was never an issue. Then Live Nation took over and it became corporate and they began changing the structure and the culture, and eventually started chasing us off.

The organized protest at Bonnaroo is a tiny microcosm of the larger national battle at hand in our community. While federal legislation is merely words enacted into action by law, the Bunk Police’s actions are speaking much louder than words. 

But one or few organizations shouldn’t be charged with changing the future of legislation. The old adage, “there is power in numbers,” has long stood the test of time and it rings true here. Here are just a few ways to get involved with creating change around harm reduction and American drug culture in general.

First, simply vote.

So-called progressives like Joe Biden are running for president in 2020. As passionate festival goers, it falls on all of everyone as a member of the community to stay informed on national political campaigns. As exhaustingly negative as it may be, Biden’s haunting words should be echoing in the back of your mind: “If I were governor of my state or the mayor of my town…”

As millennials who have the savvy to use the internet better than most, it’s not difficult to do research on moderate Democrats like Biden who run amuck. The former VP has too long been pushing through outdated conservative laws in the guise of a progressive public persona. Politicians have the ability to control public discourse and affect people’s lives with policy. They make harm-reduction seem like some radical action, when it has been statistically proven to be more effective than the punitive approach. Under currently enacted policy, drug overdose death rates in the US are 3.5 times higher on average when compared to 17 other Western Countries, according to Psychology Today.

More so, it’s important to be educated on local and state measures in order to vote on ballot measures in an informed way. How else do you think marijuana has been fully legalized in 20 states and medicinally legalized in 33 states? Do you think Boomers were the majority demographic voting “yes” on these ballot measures?

The young vote matters. High 18-25-year-old voter turnout has historically swayed the presidential outcome towards more open-minded candidates. Low young voter turnout is one of the reasons we’re all living in Trump’s America.

Second, stand for change in by protesting or joining a grassroots movement.

Grassroots action is the most immediate and visible way you can help shape the national conversation around harm reduction and the US drug epidemic. Thankfully, for all those attending Electric Forest this coming weekend, there is a way to get involved right now. The Bunk Police is hosting another harm reduction march at the main gates of Double JJ Ranch in Rothbury, Michigan.

Interested protesters can text the word BUNK to 555-888 and follow the BunkBot’s instructions so Bunk Police can update you with their location any time. Whether it is pinpointing the protest location or meeting up to get your substances tested, the Bunk Police are here for the Forest Family.

These aren’t radical or new concepts. They’re proven, action-based methods that have been working to help the people get what they need. The question passionate festival goers have to ask themselves is this: When are you going to be willing to stand for change?

Sources: Drug Policy Alliance, Bunk Police, Psychology Today, Risk & Insurance.