Drugs, children should not be at Burning Man

My good friend and Nevada Appeal colleague, Sam Bauman, is a live-and-let-live sort of fellow and presumably, that's why the veteran journalist writes such nice things about Burning Man, which he'll attend over the Labor Day weekend. I look forward to Sam's in-depth report on this year's festivities.

Nevertheless, I continue to oppose Burning Man for two main reasons: (1) the ready availability and pervasive use of illegal drugs, and (2) the presence of young children at an X-rated drug festival on public lands in Northern Nevada. But as I've written many times, I'd shut up about this dubious event if organizers moved the drugfest back to the Bay area, where it originated and where it belongs, and participants left their kids at home. It's as simple as that. Yes, I'm being judgmental but that's how I feel about it, and have ever since I first wrote about it nine years ago.

My friend Sam recently wrote a glowing front-page piece about the '04 Burning Man cleanup, and I have no problem with that despite continuing claims of environmental damage by longtime residents of the Gerlach area, where the event takes place. He also reported in his weekly entertainment column that the Burners will donate $42,000 in ice sales proceeds to art and community service organizations in the Bay area and Northern Nevada.

At first glance, that donation appears to be a generous gesture, but let's examine the numbers. If Burning Man attracts 35,000 participants (as organizers claim) who pay an average of $250 each (a conservative estimate), the "nonprofit" festival will gross more than $8 million this year. In that context, a $46,000 donation doesn't look quite so generous. In fact, it reminds me of when publicity-seeking brothel owner Dennis Hof got his picture in the Appeal by donating $500 to the Carson City Library. Big deal!

Now let's get back to illegal drugs, one of the main attractions at Burning Man. The organizers' proclaimed "zero tolerance" drug policy is laughable. Why else would more than 30,000 aging hippies spend $250 apiece to fry in the Nevada desert for three or four days? For the "art?" Not likely, unless their definition of art includes mechanized depictions of sodomy (I'm not making this up). Last year, although only 114 "free spirits" were arrested on drug charges, more than 1,500 of them received medical treatment, many for drug overdoses disguised as "heat prostration." Nearly 40 of those cases required evacuation via ambulance or costly helicopter "Care Flights" to hospitals in Reno. I wonder who paid that bill.

Back in 1998, federal anti-drug agents made the largest LSD bust in Nevada history at Burning Man's Black Rock City, seizing 100,000 doses of the hallucinogen and arresting two California drug traffickers. Meanwhile, "Piss Clear," an aptly named Burning Man-related Web site, offers annual recommendations as to which psychedelic drugs will be in vogue at the festival. A couple of years ago it was crystal meth, which has been proven to cause long-term neurodevelopmental problems in babies. Perhaps the designer drug Ecstasy will be this year's drug of choice since, according to these experts, "It's a real head-opening experience ... in general, you feel more alive and full of love." In other words, more like a "free spirit."

And what about the children? A few years ago HardWired Books of San Francisco published a lavishly illustrated coffee table book on Burning Man showing young children frolicking on the desert "playa" with naked adults. In the accompanying text, one exotic participant described how much his 9-year-old daughter enjoyed "those drum-pounding maniacs in the grip of hallucinogens" while another conscientious father advised fellow festival-goers to avoid losing track of their children while they (the parents) "take drugs and wander around the desert." That's what passes for parenting at this particular "alternative lifestyle" (their description) event. Of course you can also check out the kids on the Burning Man Web site.

The Burners have invented a new language to describe what goes on out there in the desert. They describe their festival as "an annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance" in search of "the unconscious power of dreams." In other words, it's a mind-altering experience, and we know what that really means. I haven't heard such obfuscation since Defense Secretary Rumsfeld tried to explain why no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.

Finally, let's pay tribute to the drugfest's virtual co-sponsor, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which collects hefty "usage fees" - $710,000 last year - and looks the other way as tens of thousands of "free spirits" cavort on public lands. It won't surprise me if retiring state BLM Director Bob Abbey shows up on the Burning Man payroll next year. A final question: Is drug-taking the kind of activity the Clinton administration had in mind when it designated the Black Rock Desert as a National Conservation Area five years ago? Maybe so, but I doubt it. Well, as they say in New Orleans, Let the good times roll. As for me, I'll await Sam Bauman's objective report on the proceedings.

n Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, won't be attending Burning Man again this year, although he was invited (really).


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