Drug use, arrests accompany Phish
By ELI M. ROSENBERG
and MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ
THE New York Times | January 02,2014
New York Times Photo
New York police arrest a man who allegedly tried to flee after being stopped outside a Phish concert Tuesday in New York.
NEW YORK — The arrests began almost as soon as the concertgoers amassed outside Madison Square Garden on Monday evening. Uniformed and plainclothes police officers moved through the crowd, picking off targets and leading them to a police van parked around the corner where they were patted down and loaded in.
A man, briefly questioned by the police, tried to run and was quickly grabbed by two officers who threw him to the ground and slapped on handcuffs, as fans in dreadlocks, fishnet stockings and tie-dyed shirts looked on.
It was the start of another night of revelry and arrests that has become something of a ritual within the traveling circus that accompanies the jam band Phish. At least 228 people were arrested or received summonses at shows on the first three nights of a four-night stand that ended Tuesday with a New Year’s Eve performance..
Illegal drugs have been woven into the fabric of the rock concert experience since before Woodstock. But fans of Phish, a Vermont band with an obsessed following reminiscent of the Grateful Dead, seem to have developed an outsize reputation among law enforcement agencies for heavy drug use.
In New York, the police have reason to be vigilant. Exactly four months ago, the authorities were forced to cancel the last day of Electric Zoo, a Labor Day electronic music festival on Randalls Island, after two concertgoers died and four became seriously ill after taking Ecstasy.
Given the enormous police presence in midtown Manhattan on a typical day, selling drugs outside a packed, heavily policed public event like a concert at Madison Square Garden would seem to require a heavy dose of pluck, if not something more potent. At least some of those arrested seemed to be aware of the danger.
In one episode before the Phish concert Saturday, a man named John Picrqlisi, 34, offered to keep watch as his partners, Steven Powers, 47, and Jeffrey Powers, 52, sold some mushrooms.
“Make sure you don’t get caught, cops are everywhere,” Picrqlisi yelled to his two partners, according to a criminal complaint.
The buyer, who paid $40 for the drugs, was an undercover officer. The three men were arrested and charged with criminal sale of a controlled substance. According to the complaint, Jeffrey Powers had 424 capsules of MDMA, 71 strips of LSD and 14 bags of mushrooms in his pants.
While ticket scalping and public urination accounted for some of the arrests over the first two days, most were linked to narcotics possession and sales. Undercover officers have confiscated marijuana, hash, psychedelic mushrooms, LSD, MDMA or Ecstasy, amphetamines and prescription drugs like Oxycodone, OxyContin and Xanax, among other drugs, the authorities said.
Most of the offenders were charged with misdemeanors or given summonses, according to the Manhattan district attorney’s office. So far, 10 people have been charged with felonies, most of them for attempting to sell drugs to undercover police officers.
A website called PholkTales.com that publishes stories written by fans about Phish-related antics has a subsection about encounters with law enforcement with titles like “Caught with a Bong,” “What Pipes? What Paper?,” and “I smell herb!! No you don’t.”
More than 40 people were arrested on charges related to drugs and prostitution at three Phish shows in Atlantic City, N.J., from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, according to news reports. More than 30 people were arrested at two Phish concerts on Long Island last year.
In October, the police department in Hampton, Va., produced a YouTube video welcoming fans to the city, with an officer saying that they were “eagerly awaiting Phish,” while cautioning that there would be additional police in the area.
“Yes, we will be enforcing the violations of law,” Sgt. Jason Price said in the video.
Outside the Garden on Monday, fans of the band, known as Phish Heads, complained that they were being singled out for scrutiny because of the band’s reputation, though few denied that drug use at concerts was common.
“I hate to feel like just because of a certain look that Phish fans have, or a certain idea that goes with Phish, they’re targeted in a very certain way that maybe other fans are not,” said Julia Johnson, 21, a senior at George Washington University. “We’re all here to see music that people love and the drugs and all that are just a part of the experience that everyone is trying to have together.”
Phish fans handed out a 39-page pamphlet, which included a guide to hotels and restaurants in New York City, as well as addresses for local Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
A paragraph titled “Puff Puff,” reminded concertgoers that “25 grams or less of weed” is only a violation with no jail time as long as it is not a user’s third offense.
The pamphlet also included an editorial plea to stage next year’s New Year’s Eve concert somewhere other than Madison Square Garden, where the band has played each year since 2010.
“How about visiting some other great Northeast venues?” the pamphlet said. “You know the ones that have affordable accommodations, easy transportation, and where Our Community is thoroughly welcomed by the Local Community?”