Is Burning Man All About Drug Use? The Answer Might Surprise You

The purpose of the Burning Man is to help you to accept yourself for who you are and to thrive in the environment you choose. We review the role drugs play in this experience…and the 10 principles behind the event here.

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ARTICLE OVERVIEW: According to the Burning Man website, the event is, “not a festival. Burning Man is a community.” This article seeks to look teach you about the purpose of Burning Man and whether or not it’s simply another backdrop for drug use.


What is Burning Man?

The first Burning Man was held in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco, California. Founded by Larry Harvey and Jerry James, both of whom produced the first “Man” to be burned, the event had the intention of creating a community which investigated a variety of forms of artistic self-expression. According to Harvey himself, his motivation behind the ritual was an impetuous act of “radical self-expression.” [1]

The first Man to be burned stood 8 feet tall. By 1988, that height grew to 30 feet. Likewise, the number of people attending the event increased from 35 to 200. [2] This was mainly because Harvey handed out flyers surrounding the event and actively spread the word throughout San Francisco. With the city’s hippie history and open-minded community, it comes as no surprise locals were attracted to the original concepts of Burning Man.

The main concept?

The main concept behind the Burning Man Festival is to let go. To burn away your bad memories and make light for optimism. To create and understand, no matter what the effort, it won’t last.

Today, Burning Man is a yearly event which goes on from the last Sunday of August to the first Monday of September. It’s located in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada and attracts over 65,000 people annually. [3] [4] It’s described by many as an experience rather than a festival. An experience in community and art.

In order to properly understand Burning Man and why it holds the potential to attract drug abusers, we must first look into its 10 primary principles.


Burning Man’s 10 Primary Principles

We know that people use drugs at Burning Man. And while the festival permits psychedelic experience – even encourages breakthroughs in perception – the principles behind the event tolerate but do not celebrate drug use. In fact, it might be surprising to know that civic responsibility is one main principle of Burning Man.

In other words, following laws that keep people safe is encouraged.

The purpose of the founding principles gives newcomers a sense of the atmosphere. They also establish boundaries. [5] Below is a list of the 10 primary principles that surround the event as well as a description of how each principle defines the experience:

1. Radical Inclusion

The idea of radical inclusion is that anyone and everyone is invited to the Burning Man event. Though it’s a community with a strong history, the people who participate always welcome strangers. Those who decide to attend don’t need to have any preconditions. All that’s asked is that they provide themselves with their own basic necessities such as food, water, and shelter.

2. Self-reliance

People go to Burning Man to experience something within themselves. The experience has people seek out something within their “inner resources” which may have been held back priorly. The hope is that attendees will not only learn something about who they are as individuals, but that they also reflect on the experience later in life. Ultimately, the hope is that the experience can help you become a better individual.

3. Self-expression

The idea behind self-expression is to act upon your inner talents. Yet, not just to act on them, but to offer it to others. What these talents are is up to you to determine based upon discoveries you may make at the event or perhaps a skill previously known. Organizers hope that you realize a hidden talent you didn’t know you had to offer or never honed in on. And through your discovery, realize what is yours is also everyone else’s. Then the task is to not be afraid, but to share what you have to offer to everyone.

4. Community Cooperation

Going along with self-expression, community cooperation is a principle based on interacting and working with others at the event. This can be something as simple as producing a sculpture to burn at the end of the week or to explore deeper conflicts within yourself through another person. The principle encourages you to network with those around you, to protect the safety of the space, and to keep the space in which all this occurs as clean as possible.

5. Civic Responsibility 

This principle is based on a respect of civil society. It’s expected that those who participate in Burning Man must follow local, state, and federal laws. They must understand their responsibility for the property of the event as well as each individual within the community.

6. Gifting

According to the event’s website, “Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving.” People within this community consider the act of gifting as a wholehearted form of value. Furthermore, those who give shouldn’t expect anything in exchange. They should give to others without expecting anything in return.

7. Decommodification

At this community event, commercial business is not allowed. To promote, advertise, or attempt a transaction for your business is entirely prohibited. People who consider doing this should be aware those at the event will shut them down. Not only would these kinds of acts change the overall atmosphere of Burning Man, but it would also take away from the community’s promotion of giving.

8. Participation

At Burning Man, there’s a belief that a metamorphosis can only be made through personal participation. The concept behind this is that if the world worked for others rather than for individual gain, much progress can be made within society. Therefore, at Burning Man, everyone is invited and encouraged to work.

9. Immediacy

It is believed that in day-to-day life, we place barriers between us and our inner selves. We don’t experience life within the moment. One of the purposes of Burning Man is to experience reality immediately. To take in what’s around you, whether that be other people or the natural world, and accept it as is. The principle encourages you to place yourself beyond the human experience.

10. Leaving No Trace

Quite simply, the people of Burning Man have a respect for the environment and don’t want to leave any trace of the activities performed there. The purpose of this principle is to encourage everyone to clean up after themselves, whenever it may be, and to make sure upon leaving, they don’t leave anything behind.


What Drugs do People do at Burning Man?

Unless you’ve been to Burning Man, there’s no true way to tell what kinds of drugs circle around the event. As mentioned above, those who host the event expect those to follow local, state, and federal laws. Therefore, since drugs are prohibited, it’s expected people must keep their use private.

However, after getting a taste of the principles of Burning Man, it’s understandable that the event attracts a certain kind of crowd. Particularly, those seeking to open their minds, experience something new and of which can bring upon a great change. Generally, people of this category are attracted to psychedelics. [6]

Psychedelic drugs include:

  • 2C Family
  • Dextromethorphan (DXM)
  • DMT/Ayahuasca
  • GHB
  • Ketamine
  • Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD)
  • Marijuana
  • MDMA
  • Mescaline/Peyote
  • PCP
  • Psilocybin (Magic Mushrooms)
  • Salvia

These are psychoactive drugs that transform perception and mood and influence a variety of cognitive processes. [7] Of all drug seized by police at Burning Man in 2017, 1,913.75 grams were that of psychedelics, not including 217 tabs of LSD. [8] The only other drugs seized included 231.85 grams of cocaine, 13.5 grams of methamphetamine, and about 170 unidentified pills.

Though these drugs aren’t addictive physically, they do have psychological affects which can develop a dependence. For example, some people may turn to a hallucinogenic as a means of avoiding particular life stressors. [9]

When it comes to Burning Man, the twist is the community wants you to face life stressors head on; to accept yourself for who you are and the environment you choose. 

It’s not surprising some people think they can get there with the help of drugs. However, not everyone who goes to Burning Man is on drugs. Some people go purely for the experience. Like people who just want to watch their favorite band live or enjoy themselves at a club, Burning Man isn’t solely a place people go to to take drugs.

So, if that’s the case, what is Burning Man all about?

What is Burning Man All About?

To assume that an event is all about drug use simply because it attracts that kind of crowd is unfair to those who host the event and are strong participants. Burning Man isn’t all about drug use. Rather, the Burning Man website advertises its experience as, “…entering a ‘decommodified’ space that values who you are, not what you have.”[10]

Essentially, Burning Man is about being a part of a community that values a collection of people and the talents they can offer the world. It’s about discovering who you are or who you really could be without social barriers. It’s about experiencing something very difficult to experience in other settings.

Burning Man can’t be defined by its drug use because people don’t go there for the sole sake of taking drugs. Yes, there will be drugs at Burning Man and people will hold the belief that drugs are essential to amplifying the experience. However, drugs aren’t what Burning Man is all about.

It’s about community. It’s about valuing who you already are. It’s about discovering something new. It’s about being one with the earth and planet.

Is It Safe For Me to Go to Burning Man?

This depends on what you define as “safe”.

To begin, it should be noted that people in early addiction recovery SHOULD NOT go to Burning Man. The easy access to drugs could lead into a relapse of addiction. [11] It’s important for people in the first 2-3 years of recovery to avoid triggers. This often means staying away from environments where drugs are known to be in use, such as clubs or festivals.

If you’re currently facing a drug addiction and thinking about going to Burning Man, it should be noted the safety precautions involved. The disease of addiction can lead to hazards to your health both in long-term and short. Since Burning Man takes place in the middle of a desert, there’s not nearly as much access to emergency services as there would be in a city or suburbia. Therefore, if anything were to happen – such as an overdose – there’s more of a risk involved.

Furthermore, if you’re facing a drug addiction then it’s important to seek out treatment before seeking out further ways too get high. If you don’t know where to look to find treatment, you can give us a call.

If you want to go to Burning Man purely for the experience, there’s nothing wrong with seeking out an enlightenment the festival has to offer. However, it needs to be noted that you’re going to be in a environment of people who participate in drug use. With that in mind, there are precautions to be considered in order to stay drug safe at the event.

Lastly, the website informs all those who attend to be aware of the environments’ harsh natural climate. This includes very hot days and cool nights as well as the necessity for food and water. You can find their safety video: Burning Man Safety – Desert Survival. [12]

Your Questions

If you have any further questions pertaining to Burning Man, we invite you to ask them below. If you have any experience at or information on Burning Man, we’d also love to hear from you. We try to reply to everyone in a prompt and personal manner.

Reference Sources: [1] THE NEW YORKER: How Larry Harvey, the Founder of Burning Man, Taught America to Experiment
[3] The New York Times: Scenes From Burning Man
[4] Burning Man: Timeline
[5] Burning Man: The Culture – Philosophical Center
[6] F1000 Research: Over 30 million psychedelic users in the United States
[7] Pharmacological Reviews: Psychedelics
[8] Reno Gazzete Journal: What were the top drugs police seized at Burning Man last year?
[9] SAMHSA: Physical and Psychological Effects of Substance Use Handout
[10] Burning Man: The Even – Preparation
[11] Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine: Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery
[12] Burning Man Safety: Desert Survival


About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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