I know you can’t wait to be on the playa. Whether it is your first time or your 20th time, the excitement is very real. But of course, so are the risks. In a given year, hundreds of citations are issued and dozens of people are arrested at burning man. I don’t want it to happen to you.
Law enforcement will be present at Burning Man. Over 120 law enforcement officers, including agents from the United States Forest Service and the United States Park Police will be present. Burning man has been called the most dangerous place to do drugs in the United States. Using or possessing illegal drugs may have serious legal and health risks. This article isn’t about advocating the possession or use of drugs.
This is about educating you and your friends of the risks that you are taking if you decide to bring drugs to burning man. It should go without saying that the most effective way to avoid trouble with law enforcement is to not bring illegal drugs with you. (Of course even that may not protect you in all situations, such as a recent scenario when a client was stopped while holding her friends backpack.)
If you or someone you know could be in possession of drugs, two practices can help reduce the risk: harm reduction and education. I will leave the harm reduction element to the amazing folks at DanceSafe. They are brilliant and a great source of information about the physical and medical side of the equation.
As to the education: here are 16 legal lessons that will help keep you or your loved ones from being arrested at burning man.
1. Drive Safe
It’s usually the most blatant, obvious or disrespectful people that get arrested on the way to burning man. (That’s true in all situations.)
Drive extremely carefully–don’t speed, always use your turn signals, make sure your license plate light and all other lights are working. It’s a good idea to get your vehicle checked out by a mechanic before the drive. I also recommend checking all lights and doing a visual inspection every time you stop for gas, bathrooms or food.
2. Don’t Party On the Way to the Party
Don’t smoke cannabis or use any other illegal drugs in the car on the way there. (It’s one of the easiest ways for law enforcement to find probable cause to search you or your vehicle).
Don’t drink alcohol in the car, even if you aren’t driving. If the car smells like booze, that could lead to suspicion of DUI, which could in turn wind up with a vehicle search. Don’t urinate on the side of the road. Plan ahead for your stops and stop at well lit, open locations, such as fast food restaurants. Far too many felony cases have started with someone who just needed a place to use the toilet and picked the wrong location.
3. Don’t Speed, On Or Off The Playa.
Never go over the speed limit on the way to burning man, and never go over the speed limit on the playa. (The speed limit is five miles per hour on the playa, and people are stopped for this all the time.) Don’t ride around on top of vehicles unless they are sanctioned art cars.
4. Nothing in Plain Sight
Never have anything illegal in plain sight, whether driving or on the playa. If you are stopped by the law, be polite but firm and to the point. Do not engage in unnecessary conversation. Address law enforcement as “Officer” and do not do it in a condescending way.
Doing drugs in the open on the playa is beyond foolish. It may feel like a free for all, but it is not. The US Supreme Court has found that a tent zippered and shut most closely resembles a house or domicile. That means that the police most likely need a warrant in order to search your tent — if they say otherwise … again say that you want a lawyer present and do not consent.
5. Provide Identification
Be organized. Have your your valid driver’s license, insurance, and registration in the same place and be prepared to provide it in the case of a traffic stop. On the playa you will likely need ID if you want to receive gifts of alcohol.
6. Don’t Consent To a Search
Do not consent to a search under any circumstances. Practice this: “Officer, I do not consent to a search of me or my vehicle. I will not answer any questions without my lawyer present.”
If the cops have the right to search you, you’ll already be out of the car and in hand cuffs. If they are asking for your approval to conduct a search, it’s because they can’t already search you unless you give consent.
7. Film the Encounter
It is legal for the passenger to film the interaction with law enforcement during a traffic stop. It is also legal for you to film the police if they are arresting you or someone else. However, be mindful of the fact that reaching for anything whether in your pocket, or in the car could be interpreted as a danger to the officer. Also, even though filming is legal, it often inflames the situation, so proceed with caution.
8. Ask if You are Free to Leave
If the officer says that you can leave, don’t say another word and slowly drive away. If they say no, tell them that you are asserting your right to remain silent and that you would like a lawyer present.
9. Just Say No
Be extremely wary of people that you don’t know that ask you for drugs. It’s safe to assume they are undercover law enforcement. It’s not cool to ask strangers for drugs (“hey bro, mind committing a felony for me?”) and it’s fine to tell people that ask you for drugs to leave you alone. A fun response is always, “drugs, what are those?” Be prepared, people will ask for drugs on the playa more often than you might think. Nancy Reagan was right, “Just Say No.”
10. Ask for ID
Don’t serve alcohol to minors. How do you know if they are minors? Ask for their ID. If they don’t have one, they are underage for your purposes, so don’t give them alcohol. Giving alcohol to minors is an easy way to get arrested at burning man.
11. Weed is Illegal at The Burn
Your medical marijuana card is not valid in Nevada. Assume that marijuana is illegal regardless of whatever you are used to back home.
12. The Playa is Not Your Toilet
Use the port-a-potties, not the playa as your bathroom. Respect the playa and use one of the thousands of toilets that are on the premises. (You are paying for them, after all). Public urination is one of the easiest ways to wind up getting searched by the police.
13. Police on the Playa
If you encounter the police, the information above regarding the vehicle scenario is pretty much the same. Be polite, but don’t engage in conversation or answer questions. Don’t consent to a search. Ask if you are free to leave. If you are, walk away.
14. Don’t Be a NARC
If you encounter law enforcement away from your camp, the officers may ask you to take them back to your camp. Never bring the police back to the camp, even if they say they need you to show them around or ask a few questions. They can handle doing their investigation just fine on their own. Don’t do it for them.
15. Locate Resources Ahead of Time
Upon arrival identify and locate ice stations, police, medical and black rock rangers.
16. Common Sense Still Applies:
Despite the significant police presence and massive amount of contraband on the playa, the risk of any one person having an interaction with law enforcement is small, as long as they are using basic common sense.
It’s rarely the person minding their own business that gets busted, it is usually the guy bragging about all the drugs they brought with them while waving a ziplock bag of white powder at sunrise at a huge art car that gets busted. So don’t be that guy.
For further reading, I recommend these two articles:
It’s no fun to be paranoid, take basic precautions. While there are undercover officers out there, most people on the playa are not. Burning man is an awesome and beautiful place to explore. Be smart, be careful and look out for each other.
The article was written to provide general advice. While every effort was made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained within, it cannot be guaranteed, and reading this article is not a substitute for legal advice. You should always consult with a lawyer if you want legal advice about a particular situation.