The Village Voice delves into the dark side of the jam band scene, profiling the “Nitrous Mafia” — a criminal gang that sells nitrous oxide-filled balloons to concertgoers at summer music festivals. Apparently, neo-bohemians can’t get enough of the addictive balloon huffing, casually known as “hippie crack.”
Every morning, the festival campgrounds are riddled with balloons, “like bullet shells on a battlefield,” says a fan. Unlike traditional drugs, which have long-lasting effects and can carry a fan through a concert, the high from N20 is cheap and quick. After that, it’s often back to the end of the tank line for another round. “It’s an instant rush of pure euphoria, but it only lasts for 30 seconds or a minute, and then you want it back,” says Justin Heller, a fan who owns his own biodiesel company. He no longer does balloons, but remembers the days of buying 15 in a row. “You don’t think about your money—you’re just like, ‘I want that again, I want that again, I want that again.’ ”
Throughout the year, the Nitrous Mafia travels from state to state, selling balloons at concert sites. The scene in Williamsburg is only a small preview of what happens in summer, when the outdoor festival season kicks into gear. During these campground events, which last two to four days, the Mafia, which is divided into two rings, based in Boston and Philadelphia, can burn through hundreds of nitrous tanks. With the ability to fill up to 350 balloons per tank, which they sell for $5 and $10, they can bank more than $300,000 per festival, minus expenses. Year after year, security guards at these events attempt to crack down on the illicit business, but, in most cases, they’re outmatched by a phalanx of menacing gas dealers who have little regard for unarmed concert personnel.