BLACK ROCK DESERT, Nev. — The flaming poi sticks, faux-fur leg warmers and silt-caked tents are all gone; the art cars shaped like beasts or boats have driven off, now that yet another Burning Man, the eclectic art party held last week in the Black Rock Desert, has wrapped up for the year.
But for some revelers, the party does not recede into the dust: Scores of law enforcement officers meted out more than 600 citations and arrested dozens of people — nearly all of them for possession of controlled substances, like the hallucinogenic drugs that can make frolicking in scanty costumes in the desert seem like a kaleidoscopic adventure.
In other words, the party may have ended, but for the local courts, lawyers and busted participants, the headache begins.
More than 40 of the revelers, known as Burners, were arrested, according to the sheriff’s office of Pershing County, the rural pocket of northwest Nevada where the festival takes place. The citation fines range from $100 to $500, said Rudy Evenson, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that shares policing responsibilities for the event with the sheriff’s office. Misdeeds ranged from environmental ones, like improper dumping, to drug use and possession.
￼Organizers of the festival, which drew an estimated 70,000 people to a dry lake area here known as a playa, were pleased to note that the number of arrests was relatively low; they had feared a serious crackdown by the new Pershing County sheriff, Jerry Allen. Sheriff Allen had taken a markedly harsher tone toward the rave in his backyard than had his predecessor.
“We don’t have the personnel to issue citations to 70,000 naked people on the playa, but we will be upholding the law to the best of our ability,” Sheriff Allen said in an interview with The Reno Gazette-Journal before the event.
As the post-party dust settles, the burn lingers for some. John B. Routsis, a lawyer based in Reno, Nev., represents partygoers as part of his work for Lawyers for Burners, a group that has been defending Burning Man participants for more than a decade. Every year, he negotiates with federal prosecutors to reduce charges for his Burner clients, who number about 60 annually.
“You have these individuals go there to go to this experience, and they will sometimes partake in illegal narcotics, hallucinogens, as part of their rite of passage,” Mr. Routsis said. “Now there is a great consequence to that action, where there wasn’t beforehand.”
Lately, the arrests have been handled locally rather than by the federal government, which is not good news for the Burners: In Nevada, there are lengthy mandatory jail sentences for even small amounts of drugs. Even so, evidence from past years suggests that judges seldom throw the book at the celebrators.
One of Mr. Routsis’ clients is Pamela Jenkins, 35, the owner of a cupcake shop in Las Vegas. She was arrested at the start of the festival after a sniffing dog set off an alert on her car at a traffic stop in Washoe County, just to the west of the event site. Ms. Jenkins faces several charges, including drug possession and Level 3 drug trafficking, a felony that carries a sentence of 25 years to life in prison. One charge is related to her having her 7-year-old in the car with the drugs, which the sheriff’s office described as “significant quantities” of psilocybin — found in magic mushrooms — and dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, another psychedelic.
Through Mr. Routsis, Ms. Jenkins expressed dismay at the charges. “My family, friends and I go to Burning Man to awaken our consciousness and to
￼become better human beings,” she said in an emailed statement.
Some infractions may be the result of culture clashes. In a 2012 case described on the Internet forum Reddit, a Burner said he had been arrested on child- endangerment charges by deputies who took issue with his permitting his 12-year- old son to be naked.
“I spend the night in Lovelock,” the parent said, referring to a Pershing Country prison, “and paid $885 to a bail bondsman on a $5,600 bond.”
But many of those who come from far and wide for the festival are unable to return to courts in places like Reno, about three hours from Burning Man; they do not bother fighting the citations and simply pay up. A common refrain on the playa is that the festival, which also pays hefty sums to use the land, is the region’s cash cow.
But by most accounts, law enforcement officials used a light touch this year. In the past, nearby Mono County, which many Burners drive through on the way to the playa, was springloaded to catch any wayward behavior, employing scores of extra police officers to patrol the roads for the duration of the festival. The new Mono County sheriff, Ingrid Braun, has done away with the practice.
“We treat the Burning Man travelers the same as all of our other visitors, and I did not see a need to increase our enforcement efforts during Burning Man,” Sheriff Braun wrote in an email. “All vacationers are valuable to our county, as we rely on tourism to fuel our economy.”
The festival musters a team of 700, nicknamed “rangers,” to patrol Black Rock City, as the temporary encampment is called. “Black Rock City does abide by all local state and federal laws,” said Jim Graham, the festival spokesman. Participants are warned: “Act accordingly.”
Burning Man ended last weekend, culminating, as every year, with the dramatic bonfire of a giant effigy of a man. Patrolling the playa were more than 120 law enforcement officers, including agents from the United States Forest Service and the United States Park Police, as well as local deputies, moving in clusters of uniforms. They wove among the strangely clad Burners, including elderly men wearing silver paint and nothing else, offering safety tips or issuing warnings to intoxicated bike riders. They were under orders to, well, be cool.
“If people invite you into their theme camp, accept their invitation,” said Mr. Evenson, the Bureau of Land Management spokesman. “If it’s appropriate to the uniform, we participate in their activities.”
One officer, he said, even joined a piece of performance art featuring a bad advice booth. He spent his shift telling customers to do drugs.
By SARAH MASLIN NIR SEPT. 11, 2015
image: Andy Barron/Reno Gazette-Journal
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