Police vs. the Grateful Dead, 1991. Scenes from an ongoing struggle entering its fourth generation:

At Howard County police headquarters, about 15 narcotics officers assembled at 3:30 p.m. Thursday wearing bandannas, shorts, filthy T-shirts and unkempt beards to talk about their latest undercover assault at Merriweather Post Pavilion, siteof a concert by Dead guitarist Bob Weir.

"Today is lead singer Jerry Garcia's 49th birthday, and we're going to commemorate the occasion by arresting some of his fans," HowardCounty narcotics Lt. Larry Knutson told the group.

An hour later,amid a sea of tie-dyed shirts and vans at Merriweather Post, about 10,000 fans gathered in the parking lot for dancing and partying before the evening show.

Some danced by their cars, others threw Frisbees, and a few climbed on top of their vans to stare out over the trees.

"You can get away with stuff here. Yeah, people are doing drugs," said Brenikie Jones of Shenandoah Valley, Va. "Everyone's perfectly aware there are cops here. They love to chase the Dead."

Jones said most Grateful Dead fans are experts at spotting undercover police. "They always get something wrong with their outfits. Like, their socks are always pulled up. That's a dead giveaway it's an undercover cop."

But within an hour, five people had been arrested on charges of distributing marijuana and LSD, and the decades-old rivalry had begun again.

"This just isn't fair. I didn't even have a chance to sell any of the drugs I had. You guys took 'em away too fast," said John Paul Iovaine, 24, of Boston, who was charged with selling marijuana.

One man arrived at the makeshift booking area on the edge of the parking lot and kept a contemptuous dry wit about him. "Hey, you guys got it all wrong. I wasn't selling LSD. I'm one of those, you know, designated drivers," he said.

In the crowd, thousands inhaled nitrous oxide from balloons, one of the '90s ways to get high. Others did it the old-fashioned way: They smoked marijuana, they took tabs ofLSD, they ate some hallucinogenic mushrooms. Anything to get ready for the show.

"This is a total experience. Everyone here is here toenjoy music and life. No distractions, no worrying about the external world. Just us," said Paul English, 41, an Oakland, Calif., resident who said he has followed Grateful Dead tours around the country fornearly 20 years.

But the Deadheads are never alone. For every performance, police always are waiting to show that even the most free-wheeling Deadhead will face trouble for doing drugs.

Fifteen were arrested Thursday on drug-related charges, and clashes between the crowd and police became commonplace. One officer received five stitches after one fan smashed a beer bottle on her head during a hashish arrest.

"It's getting nasty out there. They're throwing cans, beer androcks at us. We ought to just send out all the guys from patrol and lock 'em all up," said Daniel Coon, an undercover officer.

The rivalry is a bitter one, inflamed by more than 20 years of enmity between hard-headed police and Deadheads who often defend their drug counterculture as a bastion of freedom in what they label a repressed society.

"To them, it's not a wrongful lifestyle, and they will forevertry and educate us about that," said Donald J. Guevara, another of the narcotics officers. "They'll look at me and say, 'Don't you understand what we're all about? Why are you bothering us?' "

Some of the more hard-core band followers carry leaflets explaining how many drugs -- particularly marijuana -- are the subject of government propaganda campaigns, said Guevara, who was given a few. "They're very sureit's safe to do drugs," he said.

As one man, Timothy Patrick Walther, 24, of Ellicott City, was put into the paddy wagon on the scene after being arrested, an officer taunted him about his long hair.

"Get a haircut," the officer said.

"Do I have any rights?" said Walther, who was arrested and charged with inciting a riot after policesaid he began yelling to others that he had spotted undercover police.

"I love you and I love your brother. I just didn't want to see any of my friends get arrested," Walther said.

"Just get in the wagon and shut up. No one wants to hear it," another officer yelled.

One T-shirt bootlegger, who said he was from Trenton, N.J. but refused to give his name because he was selling Grateful Dead T-shirts without permission from the band, called the entourage "the last real party scene left."

"These people know it. They're holding down the fourth generation and the police are trying to stamp them out," he said. "The economy's broke, yet these guys are still finding ways to make it back and forth across the country with nothing. I really respectthem, in a way."

Of the arrests made Thursday, five were charged with selling marijuana, four with selling LSD.

Steve Rivera, an undercover detective who made several of the drug buys, said his experiences with the "Deadheads" reminded him of his youth growing up in the Bronx, N.Y.

"They'll sell you anything under the sun. It's like 42nd Street in New York," Rivera said. "Sometimes you wonder yourselfhow much good it'll do to arrest them. A lot of them just laugh at us and say, 'Oh, I'm getting busted again?' "

Rivera said he saw a lot of small-time drug use going on at the concert that he had to ignore because police just don't have the manpower to go after everyone.

"We could have arrested a couple hundred for inhaling nitrous oxide," he said.

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