Photo: Katrina Brown/Shutterstock

Thoughts on Drug Culture in Our National Parks

United States National Parks
by Colin Heinrich Sep 11, 2014

BY MIDNIGHT, the desert moon began to come up and the drugs had started to come down. A desaturated Bifröst still swam across the sky above me, and my nerves still fired wildly at every tactile sensation, but whatever locus in my mind controlled my sanity was beginning to fight back. Things had continuity again — the Joshua trees flecking the silver expanse of sand, the giant boulders we had spent the daylight hours climbing. There were other shapes on them now, other people staying at the campsite next to ours. Through the still, dry air I could hear their every word.

“I’m fucked dude, how do we get down?”

“It’s just a little drop. Just jump it.”

“I can’t even tell how far away my hands are anymore. Everything’s moving around too much. I’m gonna die if I jump. Can you come up here?”

Heh. I grinned stupidly, reassured in my lifestyle, my choices. I hadn’t expected to find other people altering their consciousness way out here, hours from the nearest city light. But I couldn’t say I was surprised.

The shrooms were easy enough to come by in the city, but when it comes to tripping out, setting is important. And there’s no place more conducive than national parks like Joshua Tree. When the US Congress established Yellowstone National Park, in 1872, the Sheepeater and Shoshone tribes native to the area had already been using plants and mushrooms for psychedelic and spiritual guidance for thousands of years. Now, in a modern world that demonizes drug culture, national parks have given that culture a canvas on which it can thrive.

The exploration of the brain is an evolutionary right. Chimpanzees have been observed actively saving fruit until it ferments, and caribou seek out psychedelic amanita mushrooms before presumably hallucinating that they’re Santa’s flying reindeer. Even dolphins have figured out how to pass around a puffer fish, the toxins causing them to flip around more than usual. We follow in their tracks any way we can, creating new and more technologically advanced chemicals to bring us back to the Stone Age.

Yellowstone, and the idea of national parks in general, was created after several expeditions to the area convinced the US government that such rugged beauty needed to be preserved. And not just for beauty’s sake. It sends a message, segmenting and isolating the world like that. It says that within those borders is a sanctuary not only for the animals and plants already there, but for anybody still trying to maintain that most basic connection to their biological heritage in a time when it seems to mean less and less to the sober mind. As the bill to create Yellowstone called it, national parks are meant to be a “pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

People got the message.

Today there are 401 “units” in America’s National Park System, covering 1,006,619 square miles — all federally protected land. Over 100 other countries have followed suit with thousands of parks of their own. The US National Park Service records 280 million visits each year (as of 2011). There are only 314 million people in the country.

That much land, that many people — it’s difficult to police. The federal government only employs 3,861 park rangers and 580 park police. Let’s plug that into some grade-school arithmetic, yeah? Under ideal circumstances, with zero overlap, each officer is responsible for the safety and security in an area greater than 226 square miles. Each. According to the Chief of Law Enforcement for the National Park Service, 2013 saw 11,120 arrests in total.

Of those, 2,184 arrests were for possession of drugs, and 5,058 possession violation notices were written. 7,241 police actions in total. For 280,000,000 visitors in a year.

And these figures aren’t an even spread — Yosemite, which sees 3 million visitors each year crammed into a 7-square-mile visitors area, saw on average 800 arrests per year, while our old friend Yellowstone only saw 166. The boys in blue have never busted a single person with ballooned pupils in Death Valley, and Joshua Tree, that legendary venue for trippin’ the life fantastic, a mere two hours outside Los Angeles, only had 89 drug charges over a three-year period1.

There are over 100 DUI arrests per day in Los Angeles County alone.

This is, of course, assuming a perfect, and therefore slightly tyrannical, enforcement of those laws. However, parks aren’t cities, and policing them is less about protecting the fabric of society and more about simply upholding their pristine nature.

One urban parks officer from Los Angeles, who preferred not to be named, noted, “After close to ten years in the field, I’d say it all depends on the drug. Pot or shrooms are a verbal warning to take it out of the public areas, but it varies from situation to situation. I see it the same as alcohol — now if we have guys who just flat out don’t care about what we say, then we take it up a notch. Confiscate, cite, detain, call up the PD to handle it if the situation warrants it.”

But even then, the demographic of those escalations aren’t aligned with the teenage kid who just wants to look at the stars. “Heavier stuff like meth, coke, hell, steroids are worst in my experience. We have to be super careful to handle things and it jumps up on our priority / response list. I’ve had guys on a roid rage trip that almost got me seriously screwed up. Heavy stuff is never fun. Especially alone and encountering it at night.”

The astronomically small odds of getting caught have definitely turned parks into the choice destination for getting messed up. But it’s more than a need to stay out of prison, it’s the sanctuary of seeking guidance from the mind opened to nature, the same thing aboriginal inhabitants used them for ages ago.

Joshua Tree is the most visible example, the desolate beauty of the desert elevated to a mythic recognition. The warm moonlight of the desert creates winds that whip through the trees, carrying wash sands and coyote screams to the lonely. It’s an image that can — and does — capture anybody that bears witness. U2’s album took the name of the park after Bono had an epiphany on the desert of the modern human spirit. Entourage took the less subtle approach, having its characters use the distraction-less desert to choose the future of their careers, and thus screaming through a megaphone the unspoken truth that never needed to be said.

And then, of course, there was Gram Parsons.

Back in 1973, country musician Gram Parsons swirled the drain of heroin addiction before finally plunging unceremoniously down the hole via overdose. In those final years, Parsons spent his free time in Joshua Tree National Park, the majesty of the desert having tapped into something primordially intact deep within his gently cracking psyche, allowing him some measure of peace. And though his family wanted him buried in his native Louisiana, those close to him knew where he should really be laid to rest. Unencumbered by sobriety, they managed to steal his body from LAX and hightail it to Joshua Tree, where they cremated him in a giant fireball before making their escape. His final days would be tied to the park forever.

The black smoke of Parson’s pyre floats through time in both directions, staining rock walls and virgin forests as a constant reminder of the inexorable bond between those of altered mind and the great outdoors. His fascination with nature, even as his brain took on new and grotesque thoughts, was only one romantic instance. It wasn’t the first. It wasn’t — there will never be — the last.

I thought about Gram Parsons a lot as I lay in my sleeping bag in the sand. About Entourage. About U2. About the guy squatting on a boulder in front of me, five feet off the ground, trying so desperately to decipher the physics that would allow him to come down. The air was warmer now and all the stars were out, lighting up the world like a million tiny holes in the fabric of the universe. I threw off my blanket and climbed to my feet again.

It was time to go exploring.


1All statistics courtesy of Ms. Charis Wilson, National Park Service FOIA Officer

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