Inside the Nitrous Mafia, an East Coast Hippie-Crack Ring

Summer concert season means jamming to the familiar hiss of 'hippie crack'

A huffer named Stuart Woolf, who is resting against a chain-link fence, balloon in hand, is asked why he appreciates the gas business. "Because nitrous is the best orgasm I've ever had in my life," he says.

There are signs that music fans are fighting back in larger numbers to keep the gas out of the scene. After the death at the Vibes, a vigilante group called the Wrecking Crew, born out of the Grateful Dead Family—fans who followed the band, year after year—retaliated by smashing up a truck with Pennsylvania tags and leading chants of "NO NITROUS!" to a chorus of festivalgoers. "The guy who owned the truck was dealing nitrous all weekend and had been followed back to his truck by the Family," says a fan.

A video currently circulating on YouTube depicts two Wrecking Crew soldiers taunting the Nitrous Mafia while dancing around a stolen tank wrapped in a sign reading "100% $cum." "Hey, Nitrous Mafia motherfuckers! We stole your goddamned tank!" yells a man, face concealed by sunglasses and a towel, middle fingers raised. Midway through the clip, a soiled pair of women's panties is thrown at the canister.

This hit's for you, bud.
C.S. Muncy
This hit's for you, bud.
Every morning, music festival campgrounds are riddled with empty balloons left over from "hippie crack."
John H. Tucker
Every morning, music festival campgrounds are riddled with empty balloons left over from "hippie crack."

Security guards, too, say they've had enough, claiming they're tired of being accused of being in on the take. Inside a small Irish pub in Worcester, Massachusetts, Rodriguez, the director of Marker Security, which has staffed the Vibes each year since the inaugural Bridgeport festival in 2000, tries to explain the difficulties of controlling the tank-toting dealers at an event as large as the Vibes, which last year attracted 30,000 fans. "If two of my guards try to walk over and take their tank, they're not walking back," says Rodriguez, 36 years old, cupping a bottle of Bud Light between his oversize hands. His six-foot-two, 300-pound frame hulks over the table. "My guards aren't about to take their lives in their own hands and get beat up," he says. "Not for $8 an hour."

The nitrous dealers have different strategies for dealing with security, says Sean. "At Vibes, we brought in 30 tanks and planned to lose about five to security," he says. "At All Good, different crews would take a turn throwing a tank at the fuckin' security. We'd hide the rest, and they'd drive away with one tank, all proud. Then they'd come back an hour later and we'd give 'em another one. Usually we'd give 'em a half-empty or almost-empty one. As long as you keep giving them a bust once in a while, it looked like the security was working. They thought they were hurting us a lot more than they were."

"The cops have no idea how far most of these kids are willing to go," he adds.

Musicians are also starting to speak out. "It's not something that needs to be a part of the music," says Christopher Robin, of the Christopher Robin Band. "Emotionally, I don't want to see it. There's nothing good about it. There are no success stories."

"If someone wants to go hit a whippet in their hotel room, that's great," says Richards of Umphrey's McGee. "But not to the point where it gets to be a very controlled monopoly on the tour. They're just simply out there to make as much money as they possibly can and leave in their wake the destruction—whether it's the garbage or the people they might have beaten up along the way."

Rodriguez swears to me that this year's Vibes will be different. He has a message for the nitrous dealers: "Enough is enough. We're no longer going to sit here and have you ruin our festivals. We're gonna take it back. If you're going to come and try and ruin our scene, we're going to shut you down."

But, minutes later, he pauses, thinking about his decade-long history fighting the balloon men. "I don't think we'll ever wipe it out," he concedes. "It's inevitable. We can only hope to control it."

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