Guy W. Farmer: Burning Man and law enforcement don’t mix
For the Nevada Appeal
Law enforcement and Burning Man – the annual naked drug festival held in the Black Rock desert about 90 miles north of Reno – mix like oil and water. That fact was made crystal clear recently when “Lawyers for Burners” complained about an allegedly oppressive police presence at Burning Man. Nothing could be further from the truth.
According to press reports, Palo Alto, Calif. attorney David Levin “maintains that law enforcement has become so heavy-handed at the eclectic art and music gathering that he was compelled to form … Lawyers for Burners to help participants who were cited or arrested.”
Well, my heart goes out to Mr. Levin and his cohorts who must obey federal and state drug laws while they frolic in the desert.
I realize that abstaining from drugs is difficult during the Burners’ annual exercise in “radical self-expression” (their words). Drug use is an open secret on the playa and that’s one reason why so many “free spirits” are willing to fork over $300 to bake in the desert over the Labor Day weekend.
“It’s a police state out there,” said Levin, presumably with a straight face. “They (the police) cite and arrest people in order to justify their existence.”
“I don’t want my guys to be party-poopers, but they have a job to do,” responded U.S. Bureau of Land Management cop Mark Pirtle. “(Burners) aren’t bad people, but they like to use drugs.” Pershing County Sheriff Ron Skinner didn’t mince words. “(Burning Man) could be classified as an extended seven-day rave that’s infested with drugs and alcohol and all kinds of bizarre behavior,” he said. And remember that all of this bizarre behavior takes place on public lands administered by the BLM.
When I visited Burning Man two years ago I soon learned that most Burners and some officials dummy-up when the topic turns to drugs. That may be because BLM and area businesses make a lot of money off Burning Man. If 45,000 people pay $300 apiece (a conservative estimate), Bay Area-based festival organizers gross more than $13 million off their “non-profit” event. BLM’s take is approximately ten percent of the gross, or at least $1.3 million.
Last year, 65 percent of 287 citations issued by BLM rangers involved drug use. That’s fewer than 200 drug cases, but many more such cases are reported as “heat prostration.” In fact, there are hundreds of drug cases out there each year and the largest LSD bust (100,000 doses) in Nevada history took place at Burning Man in 1998. And so it goes year after year, but does anyone care? Probably not, and that’s a shame.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a longtime critic of Burning Man.