Exclusive: Meet the man helping people find a safe high at music festivals

Testing drugs for purity, Adam Auctor is at the forefront of the harm reduction movement at US music festivals

For more on the Bunk Police, read Timothy Bella’s in-depth profile on the group and the state of the harm reduction movement at U.S. music festivals later this month.

Entering the nondescript bungalow that serves as Adam Auctor’s home on the outskirts of Denver, it’s hard not to notice the framed photo of Pope Francis on the wall. The other items in the room – posters of music festivals, psychedelic art, a copy of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s drug bible – make some sense.

But it’s the photo of Pope Francis that offers a window into the simple dichotomy that is the life of Auctor, the man at the forefront of the harm reduction movement – a nonjudgmental approach to limiting harmful consequences of illegal drug use.

Correspondent Christof Putzel interviewing Adam Auctor at his home in Denver, in his first ever TV interview.
America Tonight

“I think he’s doing some good things,” Auctor told our crew about the Pope before his first ever on-camera interview.

Auctor is the founder of the Bunk Police, an organization that travels to summer music events to help test the purity of festivalgoers’ drugs. His business came about amid a unique set of circumstances over the last decade: a 2003 law that held club owners and music festival promoters criminally responsible for knowledge of any drug use at their events, the revitalized big business of music festivals, the rise of electronic dance music and the ascendance of the drug Molly.

The harm reduction movement in the music scene has been further fuelled by the underground drug market’s push toward cutting drugs such as Molly or LSD with research chemicals – lowering the purity while increasing dealers’ profit margins and the risks of overdose. And that’s what Auctor and the Bunk Police are out battling. To date, they’ve tested hundreds of thousands of substances at festivals, sniffing out the bad drugs.

Standing in front of the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., I didn’t know what to expect when I first met Auctor in July. Fitting his line of work, he’s a cautious man. Until now, he’s stayed away from doing interviews on the work of the Bunk Police. In fact, "Adam Auctor" isn't his real name. It's a pseudonym he uses to protect his identity and work – both from law enforcement agencies and drug dealers. 

A black town car pulled up in front of the Embassy and the driver came out and asked me if I was waiting for Auctor. When I said yes, he told me to get in, where Auctor was waiting.

“Nice to meet you, Tim,” he said. “What is it that you would like to know?”

Testing the purity

As soon as I got off the bus for the Hudson Project, the talk among the women carrying hula-hoops and the guys in flat-brimmed hats was centered on where to find Molly or Ketamine. In its inaugural year, the Hudson Project was something of a placeholder festival. Camp Bisco, a music festival notorious for substance abuse, was suspended after a rash of drug-related hospitalizations and arrests last year. With Bisco out of commission, many festivalgoers were now spending their money at the new festival in Saugerties, N.Y. – and everything else that goes along with that.  

At the Hudson Project in June, the Bunk Police sold and distributed hundreds of drug-testing kits to festivalgoers -- some of which had more uncertain substances than others.
America Tonight

I met Auctor by the Bunk Police’s signature pink teepee. J, who asked not to be identified by his real name, the Bunk Police’s boisterous, shirtless lieutenant, joined Auctor in setting up shop and distributing information about the drug-testing kits, which cost between $20 and $25, and are also available on Amazon. After smuggling the kits past security the previous night, they worked to set everything up until 6:30 a.m. They only took a 90-minute nap before a 21-hour day in the field, joining several other volunteers scattered throughout the four camping grounds at the festival. 

The testing process itself, J said, is straightforward: Take a miniscule amount of powder from your substance and add a few drops of the kit’s liquid solution, made up of mostly formaldehyde and sulfuric acid. Within 10 to 15 seconds of shaking up the mixture, the substance will change to any number of colors, which match up to a color-coded chart included in every test kit.

A striking theme among the people I met this summer at four music festivals were the number of intelligent, friendly festivalgoers who didn’t really know what substances they were taking – and didn’t care to find out.

“If your substances show up as a rainbow color, we call that the ‘Charlie Sheen,’” J told one customer before the group moved locations. “Everything is in there.”

A striking theme among the people I met this summer at four music festivals were the number of intelligent, friendly festivalgoers who didn’t really know what substances they were taking – and didn’t care to find out. Near the Bunk Police’s main tent, we met a couple of guys in their early 20s from nearby Kingston, N.Y. They offer us chocolate chip cookies made by one of their moms, assuring us there were no drugs in them. (They were delicious.)

One of the guys, lounging in a lawn chair with a Bud Light in one hand and a cigarette in the other, works at one of the major computer companies in New York’s Hudson Valley. He told us how he took an eighth of mushrooms and a hit of acid the previous night – a significant amount in one sitting. He also laughed about how he recently took five doses of MDMA at once without ever testing the substance or knowing whether it was pure.

“That’s the attitude you see from some people,” Auctor told me.

‘The f--- it’ culture

Festivalgoers at the Hudson Project.
America Tonight

The festivalgoers that found their way to the Bunk Police offered a slice of the culture. There was Smiley, the twentysomething likely on MDMA in a tie-dye shirt and blue vest, who was over-the-top nice and enthusiastic about harm reduction. There was the guy in a “Percipher” T-shirt – showing a cat bearing a cross on its forehead – who asked me if I had any drugs before showing me how to do a “renegade,” which is shotgunning a beer by using only your thumb to punch a hole in the can. There was the young woman in fishnets, cradling a giant, inflatable penis, yelling, “Who has that neon dick?”

Auctor doesn’t consider himself part of this culture. He doesn’t take drugs at festivals, but he cares about the festivalgoers who do. And he’s trying to bring logic into their substance-taking experience. When Auctor, an Eagle Scout with a business background, started the Bunk Police in 2011, he was a complete outsider. He had always been fascinated with the music festival culture, and was well-aware of the health incidents occurring at the festivals due to adulterated or misrepresented drugs. But after years of what he called “sketchy situations and mistaken intentions,” he found the confidence needed to be a leader in on-site testing at music festivals.

“The f--- it culture needs to end,” he said.

While distributing $5,000 worth of kits that night – just a fraction of the thousands of kits they sell and distribute a year – we meet up with the guys with the chocolate chip cookies. They had a quick question about the opium – or what they thought was opium – they were smoking. Auctor recognized something was wrong.

“If this is opium, then I quit,” Auctor told them.

“We’ve been smoking it, and we’ve been fine,” one of the women at the campsite replied.

Without blinking, Auctor offered a verdict: “You should feed that to the Porta-John.”

Even with a grueling schedule that has him on the road throughout the summer for festivals or research in Europe on thin-layer chromatography, the next generation for consumer testing kits, Auctor maintains that he’ll keep pushing forward in the harm reduction movement for as long as it takes – no matter the risk.

“This is the path I’ve chosen for myself,” he said. “This is my whole life.”

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