Drug searches at Burning Man festival proposed by federal agency

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The Burning Man community is at odds with a federal land management agency over their plan to hire a private security firm to "screen" attendees for drugs and weapons before they enter the 9-day art and music festival. 

Each September, Burning Man becomes Nevada’s third-largest metropolitan area when 70,000 to 80,000 people descend on the Black Rock Desert for the counter-culture festival 100 miles north of Reno. 

Burning Man has been described as “an adult playground full of sex, drugs, art, and music,” where attendees unconditionally give gifts to one another and share as much as they can with other so-called “burners.” Money is not exchanged at Burning Man, rather food, drinks, art and a wide variety of drugs are exchanged or "gifted" to others.  

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is considering granting a 10-year recreation permit to the decades-old festival. The agency has spent $1.5 million over the last 3 years studying everything from air quality and climate to public health and safety to noise and traffic. The bureau released its' findings in a 900-page environmental impact statement last Friday, giving the public 30 days to read and comment on the document before a final decision is made. 

The federal agency is recommending attendance be capped at the current 80,000 limit as opposed to the 100,000 Burning Man had proposed. 

The agency is also looking to hire a private security firm to screen vehicles, participants, vendors, contractors, staff and volunteers for drugs and weapons before they enter the event. The screenings would begin two weeks before Labor Day and could start as early as this September.  

"Illicit drug use can result in an urgent need to evacuate one's refuse, resulting in increases of human feces deposited on the playa and left unclaimed by participants in recent years,’’ according to the environmental impact statement. 

To address drug use, “third-party, private security will report banned or illegal contraband or significant concerns directly to law enforcement,’’ according to the environmental impact statement.

In public meetings and in commenting on the report, festival-goers called the suggested drug searches unconstitutional.

“The requirement to hire a private security company to screen and search all vehicles entering (the event) appears to be search and seizure without just cause. The 'probable cause' in this case is solely and exclusively the fact that a participant is going to Burning Man and would constitute a violation of the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,’’ according to one commenter. 

Steven T. Jones, the author of “The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture,’’ has attended the event more than a dozen times. 

“I think it probably wouldn’t pass a 4th Amendment test,’’ Jones said.

Moreover, attendees say the new requirement would compound the traffic backup that often already has vehicles (and people) waiting 8 to 10 hours in line to enter Burning Man. 

“Just getting that many people in and out of the playa presents a real logical challenge. Adding an invasive search on top of that would be a real nightmare,’’ said Jones. 

The Bureau of Land Management released a statement to KTVU about the proposed screenings.

“Our law enforcement personnel are focused on life, health and safety issues for attendees and staff, which can be complex for an event this size at a unique location like the Black Rock Playa. Screening processes and procedures are just one facet of a multi-jurisdictional law enforcement approach to ensure the safety and security of the event.”

It’s not a secret that there are drugs at Burning Man. 

In 2017, for example, records from the Pershing County Sheriff's Office show authorities confiscated more than 800 grams of psychedelic mushrooms, more than 600 grams of marijuana, more than 330 grams of ecstasy and more than 230 grams of cocaine, as well as other narcotics at the event. About four dozen people were arrested on drugs charges that year.

And while one event participant said looking for drugs at the festival is “like looking for a gun at a gun show,”  attendees say searching everyone for illegal drugs is “unjustified and unworkable.”

A decision on the final environmental impact statement is expected in mid-July.