By Bob Ruggiero
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But many Dead Heads were turned off by the tanks from the onset and began referring to the dealers as "tour rats" who made money off the mother ship. "They saw the nitrous vendors as people from outside of the subculture sucking profits out of the scene," says sociologist Rebecca Adams, a professor and associate provost at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "They would sell the nitrous and then disappear, without spending money on tour. They were profiteers, or what Dead Heads called 'corporate vendors.' " Garcia was aware of the problem, says Gans, "but he was pathologically unable to take control and responsibility."
At the turn of the century, following the death of Garcia and the expansion of jam-band culture, Shakedown Streets along the East Coast began attracting nitrous dealers in greater numbers, along with people who looked less like Phish fans. "I began noticing that all the people selling balloons weren't nice hippie kids trying to go from show to show," says fan Justin Heller. "It became clear that they were a bunch of thugs trying to make money."
"They're sketchy," says one fan. "They're shit," says another. One fan cuts right to the point: "These guys don't even know who Jerry Garcia is, and they never will." Other vendors began complaining that nitrous sales drove down their T-shirt and jewelry businesses. "Nitrous straight robs the pockets of the other workers," says Sean, the ex-member of the Nitrous Mafia. "Everybody's fuckin' broke 'cause they dropped every dollar they had on nitrous."
This new class of gas dealers seemed to come almost exclusively from Philadelphia, where nitrous was easy to purchase. By 2003, the gas business had outgrown Shakedown Street and had crept onto street corners. Outside some concerts, tanks were stationed several feet apart from each other. Eventually, turf wars started breaking out, leading to intimidation and violence. Stronger nitrous dealers would ask lower-level merchants to hand over their tanks—or risk the consequences.
"If you start working Shakedown next to a bunch of the mob kids, and you try running your own tank there, you're gonna get that tank taken from you and it's gonna become theirs, unless you're paying them off," says Sean. "They do not let you work around them without being one of them. And that's where the Mafia aspect really came around."
One fan says he was beaten up two years ago at Jones Beach because a dealer thought he stole a balloon. Last year at Vibes (where a portion of the park has been dubbed "Nitrous Alley"), a fan says he saw a dealer smash his tank on a man's head. At a Phish show last year in Portland, Maine, a fan watched a parking attendant get pummeled. Knives and bats were sneaked into lots. "I straight-up saw a Nitrous Mafia guy hit a cop's face in with a tank," says a man who recently attended All Good, a mountainous festival venue where gas is inhaled inside a deep gorge called "Wookie Nitrous Cave." "Nobody fucks with those fuckers," says a tattoo artist who goes by the name PeaT.
Clark, of Tea Leaf Green, doesn't get why his fans are drawn to the stuff: "There are certain drugs that enhance the concert experience—a little doobie here, or some mushrooms there," he says. "But I don't see how nitrous enhances the concert experience. With other drugs, you can dance. With nitrous, you slump onto a car and disappear until it's time for the next balloon. They don't call it 'hippie crack' for nothing."
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency doesn't consider nitrous a controlled substance and doesn't regulate it. Instead, it's monitored by the Food and Drug Administration as a food-grade propellant, medical-grade gas, and prescription drug. It's legal to own it, but, like other inhalants, it's prohibited by the FDA to purchase and sell for the purposes of getting high. Each state has its own laws against it, and most treat the illicit sale of nitrous as a misdemeanor, with penalties ranging from small fines to a few months in prison. In what was likely the most significant federal crackdown on the gas, defendants from Philadelphia and New Jersey were charged with unlawful distribution of nitrous to an undercover police officer in the parking lot outside a Dave Matthews Band show at Washington, D.C.'s Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in 2001. At an appeal hearing, a District Court judge ruled that the dealers' attempt to sell nitrous without a prescription was, in essence, a misbranding crime, in violation of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and the defendants' cases were sent back down to lower courts.
Some environmentalists complain that nitrous is a greenhouse gas. Some music fans say the hiss of the gas keeps them up at night. Still others kvetch that the tank lines clog up the campgrounds, and that dealers use random tents as hiding places. One fan says he was jolted from his sleep when a tank was slipped under his tent and slammed into his head. Another said she had her tires slashed after disobeying orders not to move her car.