Welcome to the Cocaine Bear superstore. life-size bear on aisle 1.


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

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

Inside the spacious store, every decoration and item celebrates Kentucky. That includes the increasingly popular Cocaine Bear, a tribute to the real-life animal that was found dead in a Georgia forest in 1985 after ingesting cocaine ejected from a drug-smuggling plane in Kentucky. The “poor, sweet black bear,” as VanMeter described it, inspired the dark comedy-thriller “Cocaine Bear.” During 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 a red carpet appearance at a historic downtown movie theater, the bear was returned to the Fun Mall, where it has been displayed since Kentucky for Kentucky purchased it in 2015.

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

As the film’s release approached, people just kept talking about Cocaine Bear – and buying koozies that say “I partied with Cocaine Bear in KY for KY”; a cocaine bear “blowing” 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 that ultimately led to the bear’s fatal overdose.

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

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

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

Driving 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 came at just the right time; if they had been earlier, the bear would not have yet returned from its trip around town.

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

Although they had driven through Lexington before, the couple had never stopped. “Anything that makes you laugh,” which includes the cocaine bear, is worth a trip, Lemieux said.

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

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

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

When asked about the authenticity of his bear, VanMeter said “we’re sticking with the story on the website.”

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

Cocaine Bear 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 bear at the Fun Mall, buy themed merchandise and dance with Sarah Wylie, VanMeter’s wife, while wearing a bear costume with “cocaine” smeared on her nose.

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

“The whole city 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 a few blocks from the Fun Mall, had a Cocaine Bearclaw that sold out within a few hours the morning of its premiere.

VanMeter said he hasn’t faced much backlash against the popularity of Cocaine Bear. Having spoken about his struggles with addiction in the past, VanMeter said he sees the cocaine bear as a cautionary tale. Cocaine Bear, and the drug traffickers who made it happen, is “a narrative of the failed war on drugs,” VanMeter said.

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

People are often drawn to hedonism, vice and true crime, all of which 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 of “The Bluegrass Conspiracy.”

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

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