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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Welcome to the Cocaine Bear superstore. Life-size bear on Aisle 1.

A Kentucky souvenir store has been cashing in on Cocaine Bear’s likeness for years before Hollywood

Cocaine Bear a.k.a. “Pablo Escobear” is on display at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, Ky. (Photos by Michael Swensen for The Washington Post)
6 min

LEXINGTON, Ky. — A small crowd watched on Sunday as Griffin VanMeter wheeled Cocaine Bear inside the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall, a souvenir shop dedicated to showing “Kentucky Kicks Ass.” VanMeter returned the 175-pound stuffed black bear to its habitat, built into a wall next to maps that mark where visitors have come from to see the shop’s main attraction.

“Hold on, I’ll get his hat!” said VanMeter, one of Kentucky for Kentucky’s co-owners, before placing a blue Kentucky ranger hat atop the bear’s head. Then he stepped aside so visitors could get what they came for: a photo with Cocaine Bear.

Inside the spacious retail store, every decoration and piece of merchandise celebrates Kentucky. That includes the increasingly popular Cocaine Bear, an homage to the real-life animal that was found dead in a Georgia forest in 1985 after ingesting cocaine thrown out of a Kentucky drug smuggler’s plane. The “poor, sweet black bear,” as VanMeter described it, inspired the dark comedy thriller “Cocaine Bear.” Over its opening weekend, the film was second at the box office to “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”

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That Sunday, after a whirlwind weekend that included an appearance on the red carpet at a historic movie theater downtown, the bear was returned to the Fun Mall, where it has been displayed since Kentucky for Kentucky acquired it in 2015.

Kentucky for Kentucky, with its unconventional approach to promoting the commonwealth, has been cashing in on Cocaine Bear’s likeness years before Hollywood brought it to the big screen. VanMeter is “really, really glad” that Kentucky for Kentucky LLC trademarked “Cocaine Bear” for entertainment services in 2019.

As the movie’s release drew closer, people just kept talking about Cocaine Bear — and buying koozies that say “I partied with Cocaine Bear at KY for KY”; a Cocaine Bear “blow” globe; T-shirts in the style of “Miami Vice”; and tank tops that say “Don’t Do Drugs.” The store also carries “The Bluegrass Conspiracy,” a book by Sally Denton that details the drug and ammunition smuggling operation that ultimately led to the bear’s fatal overdose.

Collaboration with other artists, big and small, has been one of VanMeter’s favorite parts of the Cocaine Bear mania. Louisville-based jewelry maker Cheyenne Coffey contributed earrings and an exclusive pin for the movie’s premiere. Positive Attraction Soaps Company of Beattyville, Ky., sells “Mountain High” and “Forest Trip” soap in the shop. VanMeter’s current favorite shirt was designed by clothing brands Boss Dog and Meth Syndicate.

All of this Cocaine Bear merchandise, which VanMeter said is “a significant part” of Kentucky for Kentucky’s business, can be ordered online, yet people still make the pilgrimage to the Fun Mall. In a town known mostly for horse racing, bourbon and the University of Kentucky, Cocaine Bear is becoming a sight to see.

“It’s always been a tourism driver,” VanMeter said.

Traveling back to St. Louis from Tennessee on Sunday afternoon, Richard and Ame Lemieux followed their friend’s advice to stop in Lexington and see the Cocaine Bear. They arrived at just the right time; if they had been any earlier, the bear would have not yet returned from its tour around town.

“Every bit — sorry, Bear — every bit as tacky as I thought it would be,” Ame Lemieux said after posing for a photo.

Though they had driven through Lexington before, the pair had never stopped. “Anything that makes you laugh,” which includes the Cocaine Bear, is worth a trip, Lemieux said.

“Life is a lot better when you stop and see something,” she said.

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Visitors may not know that Kentucky for Kentucky’s stuffed bear isn’t the same one who died in the Georgia woods, which was reportedly found in a “badly decomposed” state, according to the state’s chief medical examiner. Even the visitors who know of the bear’s inauthenticity, reported by Kentucky outlets such as WAVE and the Lexington Herald-Leader, get caught up in the thrill of Cocaine Bear.

The mythology published on the Kentucky for Kentucky website claims that same bear was stuffed back in the ’80s and moved from a park’s recreation center to a storage facility to a pawnshop to the possession of a country musician who may or may not have been Waylon Jennings — a spokesman for the country music legend’s son told the Wall Street Journal that Jennings never purchased a taxidermied bear — to his friend Ron Thompson and then to a traditional Chinese medicine shop. Supposedly the widow of the shop owner gave it to Kentucky for Kentucky for just the cost of shipping.

When asked about the authenticity of his bear, VanMeter said “we stick to the story on the website.”

“I think there’s thousands of people here that are kind of validating that the bear is right there,” he added. “There’s a black bear named Cocaine Bear — and we feel very valid that is the Cocaine Bear and the only Cocaine Bear.”

Cocaine Bear’s fans were out in full force Friday for a sold-out premiere at the 100-year-old Kentucky Theatre. Early attendees could walk the red carpet to see the Fun Mall’s bear, buy themed merchandise and dance with Sarah Wylie, VanMeter’s wife, while she wore a bear costume with “cocaine” smeared on its nose.

Lexington had been celebrating its local celebrity all day, which VanMeter said he appreciated. Wylie described the crowd following around the bear, clamoring for photos, as a “bear-avan.”

“The whole town is taking ownership,” VanMeter said.

Other local businesses added Cocaine Bear items to their menus. Pivot Brewing sold two mixed drinks, called “Cocaine Bear” and “Pablo Escobear,” to celebrate the release. North Lime Coffee and Donuts, just blocks from the Fun Mall, had a Cocaine Bearclaw that sold out within a few hours on the morning of the premiere.

VanMeter said he hasn’t encountered much pushback against the popularity of Cocaine Bear. Having previously spoken about his struggles with addiction, VanMeter said he views Cocaine Bear as a cautionary tale. Cocaine Bear, and the drug smugglers that made the incident happen, is “a tale of the failed war on drugs,” VanMeter said.

“Don’t do drugs,” VanMeter said the story warns, “because there’s a lot of collateral damage that can happen.”

People are often attracted to hedonism, vice and true crime, and all are present in Cocaine Bear’s story. He said he hopes this inspires someone — true crime podcasters, perhaps — to look deeper into the unsolved mysteries in “The Bluegrass Conspiracy.”

“Some stories are just the greatest stories ever told,” VanMeter said.