High on the Playa: Burning Man and Drug Use, Part I

Burning Man 2014 main burn

Burning Man is over for another year but many of us will remain enthralled with the continued media coverage of the event. As the photos and videos roll out and the stories are told we get a small taste of what goes on there and the fun we may have missed. While there are aspects that hold our interest such as the art, attire and camaraderie, we may also be curious about the drug culture at Burning Man.

Now that another man has been burned and everyone is heading back to their regular lives I thought it might be interesting to try to get an idea about the substances people may have used to heighten their experiences during their stay in Black Rock City. Information, might I say, is not easy to come by and is by no means definitive. While large cities put together reports gleaned from several sources to try to get a handle on what kind of drugs people are using and getting in trouble with, small towns usually don’t have the resources and personnel to do the same. Black Rock City is an even more special case because it exists for a brief period each year and then disappears until the following year. However, despite the obstacles there are a number of sources, both governmental and anecdotal, that can help to elucidate the specifics of drug use at the event. Here goes.

Black Rock City Drug and Alcohol Policy

The Black Rock City Survival Guide has a drug and alcohol policy. It can be found here. It goes into detail regarding the laws related to what is defined as trafficking and possession. Specific to trafficking, it alerts participants to the presence of undercover officers and advises that the practice of “gifting” can also be viewed as trafficking by law enforcement. It explicitly states that the use of medical marijuana is not legal in the state of Nevada.

Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Report

Burning Man Event Law Enforcement Activity Summary (2010 - 2013)

YearBlack Rock City Pop.BLM Operation
(# of Officers)
BLM LE Actions
Citations/Arrests
BLM Officer/Participant Ratio
201051,51551293 (158 drug) / 9 1 per 1,010
201153,73551376 (218 drug) / 8 1 per 1,053
201252,385 70365 (253 drug) / 14 1 per 748
201369,613 70433 (309 drug) / 6 1 per 994

Table 1.1

As can be seen from the table, although the population of Black Rock City increased 35% from 2010 to 2014, the number of drug citations increased by almost 96%. This cannot be accounted for by the small increase in the ratio of law enforcement officers to participants. Either one or both of the following assumptions could be made: law enforcement is more aggressively citing participants or more participants are bringing themselves to the attention of law enforcement by their behavior.

Lawyers for Burners

According to, Lawyers for Burners, the BLM has shifted its drug enforcement efforts from inside the event to the entrance road into the event and Gate road just inside the event. They report that in 2013 about 85% of people contacting Lawyers for Burners received citations while on the way into Black Rock City.

Lawyers for Burners also report that, from the information they received from the BLM for 2012, 253 of 365 citations were drug-related (as can also be seen in Table 1), close to 70% of the total. Most of these citations were for small amounts of marijuana. There were 11 citations/arrests for distribution/trafficking of drugs.

In Part II

In the elusive quest to get an idea of what substances people are using in Black Rock City there remain some other aspects to explore. Some people are still recovering from Burning Man 2014 for better or worse so the picture is far from complete. The powers that be are beginning to pull together their 2014 statistics for public consumption. In addition, other avenues of inquiry will be examined in the next post. These include anecdotal reports, Pershing county/BLM citation/arrest records for 2014, alcohol use at the event and reports of arrests for drug trafficking on the way to the event.

A Note

By no means should this informational pursuit be construed as an indictment of the drug culture. People have always used substances including one of the most dangerous intoxicants, alcohol. If one chooses to use a drug, knowing what one is using and how to use it safely is very important; it can make a big difference in how one survives on the playa.

Your comments and suggestions are welcome.

References
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1. United States. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). (2014, March 31) Law enforcement activity statistics for the Burning Man event, 2010-2013. Retrieved September 8, 2014 from GovernmentAttic.org,
file:///home/chronos/user/Downloads/burningmanstats.pdf

2 thoughts on “High on the Playa: Burning Man and Drug Use, Part I

  1. Hi Kathleen,

    This has been my first introduction to the “Burning Man” so I had to Google it to find out what it was all about because I was not aware of this at all.
    I found it quite strange. But now that I understand what it’s all about, reading this table does bring it to light.
    The amount of drug use that is reported makes some sense as to why these people are doing this. I cannot wrap this around my own head, but I guess, if I were on some kind of drugs it would.
    Thank you for bringing to light what I was so unaware about.
    -Donna

    1. Hey Donna,
      Thanks for reading! I so appreciate that you went to the trouble to investigate what Burning Man is about. There was so much press and commentary about it that I overlooked that not everyone would be following the event.

      It can seem like quite a drug fest but there actually are many people that go that don’t use substances and see it purely as an opportunity for self-expression and transformation. In fact there are a number of clean and sober camps there.

      My view is that it is easy to see it in extremes, the place of community and self-realization or the decline of Western civilization!

I am interested in what you have to say. Please comment!