Breaking good: Preventing overdoses at concerts

Substance-testing organization the Bunk Police wants to rid music festivals of adulterated drugs

Festivalgoers at the Hudson Project in upstate New York, June 2014.
America Tonight

In an oversized field in upstate New York, Adam Auctor is on a mission: to hand out as many drug-testing kits as he can without being noticed by police or event security.

Auctor is at the Hudson Project, a new music festival in Saugerties, where throngs are moving to deafening electronic dance music and a pink tent is illuminated by flashing lasers.

Onstage is Conspirator, a band made up of members of the Disco Biscuits, the group that founded the nearby Camp Bisco, a music festival so notorious for substance abuse that it was canceled this year. Auctor, normally quiet and cautious, wends his way close to the front and, after waiting for the right moment, chucks a wad of stickers onto the stage. Hundreds of bits of paper saying “Bunk Police” flutter in the air to cheers from the crowd, as if it were a part of the set. Then he’s racing through the crowd, speeding past two security guards who are making a beeline to the front to see who’s causing the ruckus.

“If they didn’t know about us beforehand, they know us now,” Auctor says.

It’s a day in the life of Adam Auctor (not his real name) and the Bunk Police, a substance-testing organization mostly made up of volunteer festivalgoers that has become a leader in harm reduction on the summer music-festival scene. As overdoses, hospitalizations and arrests associated with adulterated substances at these venues have risen over the past decade, the Bunk Police has sold or given away hundreds of thousands of drug-testing kits to ensure that people doing drugs at festivals know exactly what they’re taking.

‘Drugs like Molly are so popular at these events that it’s pretty well known that no one is taking pure MDMA anymore.’

Tammy Anderson

expert in adulterated substances

While fans have long been tripping on ecstasy while listening to their favorite bands, the serious consequences of taking substances that unbeknownst to them, have been cut with research chemicals, are entirely new. Research chemicals — new and not yet adequately tested for health risks — are routinely used to cut designer drugs such as Molly, LSD and Ketamine, resulting in higher profit margins for sellers. And taking adulterated products means a greater threat of overdose, which is what Auctor and his group are trying to prevent.

“Drugs like Molly are so popular at these events that it’s pretty well-known that no one is taking pure MDMA anymore,” says Tammy Anderson, an expert in adulterated substances at the University of Delaware. (MDMA, a synthetic, psychoactive drug, is short for 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, and is another word for ecstasy, or, recently, Molly). “Instead, they’re getting something that’s cut with multiple research chemicals.”

A wave of well-publicized overdoses at music festivals last year restarted dialogue and raised concern about the safety of festivalgoers. The federal Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act was first proposed more than a decade ago; in 2003, a very similar law, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, was enacted, prohibiting venue owners and music promoters from managing or profiting from any location where they were aware of MDMA (Ecstasy) distribution, sales or use. But the lack of drug-safety awareness at music festivals today has left Auctor feeling that it’s up to him to demonstrate the importance of purity testing.

After seeking permission from several festival promoters to sell and distribute his drug-testing kits and getting no response, Auctor says, he took matters into his own hands, smuggling the test kits into festivals in a variety of creative ways, including bribing food-truck owners to hide the kits under their produce.

Now, he says, “We put them in black duffel bags and throw them over fences in the middle of the night. We do whatever it takes.” 

Bunk drugs

A popular drug-testing kit used by the Bunk Police, the Marquis kit is able to test for substances such as MDMA, amphetamines and methylone.
Bunk Police

Walking through the village of campsites on Winston Farm, site of the Hudson Project, depravity isn’t hard to come by. A woman cradles a giant, inflatable penis, yelling, “Who has that neon dick?” while a barely legal guy drops his pants next to horse feces and acts as if he’s about to defecate.

Armed with single-use testing kits, Auctor goes from camp to camp to see whether people know what they’re taking. A group of eight shirtless guys from New York City are sitting around their campsite, drinking Bud Light. They’re a smiling, jovial bunch, telling Auctor they’re in the middle of a wicked acid trip. They ask him to test their drugs, which include acid, Ketamine, cocaine and “sass,” slang for MDA, another psychedelic drug. They’re confident their stash will pass the test; they spent $370 on the bunch. “I’m glad we have some good drugs,” one of the men says.

But by the time the testing is complete, just one of their substances turns out to be the real thing. The others are amphetamines, baking soda and mud.

“That was one of the more appalling displays of bunk drugs I’ve seen in a while,” Auctor says.

Auctor grew up in a suburb on the outskirts of Houston, a homeschooled Eagle Scout who would go on to study business at one of the major universities in the state. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his degree, but as a festivalgoer himself, he was fascinated by the substance culture the music scene was associated with and by the stories he would hear of people having seizures there. While heading to the Wakarusa Music Festival near Ozark, Arkansas, in 2011, those stories and images sparked an idea: Why not buy drug-testing kits similar to what the police use and give them out for free at music festivals? 

‘We put [the drug-testing kits] in black duffel bags and throw them over fences in the middle of the night. We do whatever it takes.’

Adam Auctor

founder, the Bunk Police

The Bunk Police's drug-testing kit reveals that these drugs, sold as Ketamine, were adulterated.
America Tonight

The response, Auctor says, was overwhelming. “The demand was just absolutely insane,” he recalls, “especially once people started to realize what was actually out there.”

Auctor estimates that there have been more than 250 research chemicals that have entered into the adulterated substance market in the last three years. The adulterated drugs cost drug dealers from 10 cents to a couple dollars per dose, he says, as opposed to the street rate of anywhere from $10 to $15 per pill, exponentially increasing any potential profits.

Nowadays, a safe high is hard to come by. In 2013, South Florida crime labs analyzed almost 1,540 samples of synthetic drugs seized in drug-related arrests. Of those, 1,194 were samples of methylone, another designer drug that’s structurally similar to MDMA but whose long-term effects still aren’t quite known, mostly sold as Molly. Just 54 samples — or less than 4 percent — contained pure MDMA.

At the August 2013 Electric Zoo festival at New York’s Randall Island, two people died from drug overdoses, while four others needed to be hospitalized, prompting city officials to cancel the third day of the festival. The death of 23-year-old Jeffrey Russ was due, in large part, to the adulterated Molly he had bought from a local drug dealer.

‘If I were promoting a festival, I would rather have the Bunk Police there than have three people dead from overdoses.’

Sean Dunagan

advocate for drug policy reform

James Hall is an epidemiologist at the Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities in Miami and heads up the clinical research on drug abuse trends in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties. Hall says the crux of the problem on the music-festival scene is that the U.S. government has yet to educate the public that Molly, which is sold as pure MDMA, is rarely that. 

For festival promoters, safety precautions have been a concern. After the deaths last year, Electric Zoo put out a Molly-awareness video. Harm-reduction groups such as DanceSafe have also been allowed to provide information on the drug ecstasy. But Auctor says that existing safety precautions at music festivals aren’t enough. The Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation act held club owners and music festival promoters criminally responsible for any knowledge of drug use at their events. This has resulted in promoters shying away from drug-testing kits; their acknowledgment of the Bunk Police’s presence would mean that promoters are aware drugs are being used at their events, putting their assets in serious jeopardy of being seized by the government. Requests for comment from MCP Presents, the promoter that oversees the Hudson Project and other large-scale music festivals, were declined.

Sean Dunagan, a former intelligence analyst for the Drug Enforcement Agency and advocate for drug policy reform, blames the RAVE Act for the drug deaths. “If I were promoting a festival, I would rather have the Bunk Police there than have three people dead from overdoses,” he says. 

A safer high

The premise of the kits, which can be purchased for $20 to $25 at an event or through online retailers such as Amazon, is simple. Take a minuscule amount of the powder from the substance and add a few drops of the liquid solution from the kit, which consists primarily of formaldehyde and sulfuric acid. After 10 to 15 seconds of shaking the mixture, the substance changes color. A color-coded chart provides the key. The kits can be used for anywhere between 50 to 100 separate uses. Bunk Police testing kits have found substances sold as pure MDMA to be entirely composed of or contain large amounts of bath salts, which can induce hallucinations and other, more serious reactions such as dehydration, the breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue and kidney failure.

The testing kits aren’t 100 percent accurate, and it’s sometimes difficult to identify the components in mixed drugs, which has Auctor researching a technique called thin-layer chromatography. The next generation of consumer testing kits is being developed inside a nondescript bungalow in the suburbs of Denver, Auctor’s home and the official headquarters of the Bunk Police. Downstairs is a makeshift laboratory resembling something from the early episodes of Breaking Bad.

“‘Breaking Good,’ not ‘Breaking Bad,’” Auctor says. 

Adam Auctor, right, shows “America Tonight” correspondent Christof Putzel the chemistry necessary to create one of the Bunk Police’s drug-testing kits.
America Tonight

Yet, the danger of distributing the kits is real. Auctor knows that by selling his kits and offering people an avenue for a safer, more informed high that he’s taking money out of the pockets of drug dealers. He worries that someone will stab, shoot or kidnap him or one of the group’s volunteers. And depending on the states where the kits are distributed, the Bunk Police can run into some legal gray areas. Though the kits are allowed under federal narcotic laws, paraphernalia laws vary across different states. In Ohio, California and North Carolina, for instance, the sale and distribution of kits becomes an offense once an illegal substance is mixed with the chemicals of the drug testing kit.

“It’s definitely a gray [legal] area, but [on-site testing] needs to be done,” Auctor says. “I feel like I have the tools to do it.”

As the bass booms, Auctor paces back and forth in the dark in the thin corridor between a wall of plastic portable potties and a chain-link fence, peeking outside the festival grounds every few minutes. He calls a member of his crew, warning that the security pat-downs have intensified in the past hour.

But there’s no trouble, and the single-use kits make it into the festival as stealthily as they were sneaked in. Now, walking into the tent with the loud beats and the lasers, Auctor has a garbage bag full of kits and a job to do.

“I have people tell me that I’ve saved hundreds of lives,” he says. “Just one would be enough.”

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