“That stuff is bad news,” my friends told me. “It’ll mess you up, even kill you.” But I didn’t listen. I needed a fix, and I needed it soon. The place where I used to score was shut down, and it was imperative that I find a new connection. I hit the streets, and it didn’t take long to find someone who was holding.

In the past, I met my dealer behind a warehouse for secret buys. But my new supplier sells at a farmers’ market, strictly under the table and unadvertised. I approached her booth, checked over my shoulder a couple times, and whispered “Word on the street is you sell raw milk.”

That’s right, I like my milk raw — in other words, unpasteurized, straight from the cow or goat. And I’m not alone: A growing number of consumers imbibe the substance as a powerful source of nutrients. Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a DC-based natural health advocacy group with hundreds of local chapters and more than 10,000 members throughout the nation, estimates there are now more than half a million raw milk drinkers in the U.S., a considerable increase from when the organization was founded in 1999.But because raw milk is deemed unsafe by many, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), its sale is illegal throughout much of the U.S.

Only six states can legally sell untreated milk in stores. Another 28 allow its sale on the farm where it’s produced, and in the rest of the country, raw milk can only be purchased through programs where you own “shares” of a cow, or not at all. Even in the states where it is legal, laws are so convoluted that raw milk drinkers are forced to drive great distances to buy it, or meet at secret drop points to illicitly purchase the product.

Raw milk’s regulations date back to 1987, when the FDA required that all milk sold and distributed between states for human consumption had to be pasteurized. In the spring of 2007, the FDA reminded Americans that raw milk “potentially contains a wide variety of harmful bacteria – including Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria, Campylobacter and Brucella – that may cause illness and, possibly, death.”

Proponents claim the pasteurization process, which kills harmful bacteria, also reduces calcium assimilation and destroys many of the valuable nutrients found in unadulterated milk such as beneficial bacteria, vitamins C and B6, the binding protein that helps with vitamin B12 absorption, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). They assert that raw milk is a powerful weapon against asthma, and they link pasteurized milk to allergies, arthritis, tooth decay, and numerous other ailments, even cancer. Critics argue there's no clinical proof showing raw milk is healthier than pasteurized, only anecdotal evidence.

Raw milk certainly can make you sick—but so can pasteurized milk, ground beef, and jalapeño peppers. Raw milk advocates consider the risks insignificant, and are quick to send consumers to the data they say prove it. For example, a 2003 joint report from the FDA, the US Dairy Association, and the Center for Disease Control examined the risks of listeriosis, a bacterial infection, in various foods. Deli meats were found to be more than 10 times as dangerous as raw milk on a per-serving basis.

Ask any raw milk drinker and they’ll tell you the taste and health benefits are well worth any potential risks. “It’s an easily digestible and palatable source of raw protein and raw fat, which makes a huge difference in people’s health,” says Dr. Thomas Earnest, leader of the Albuquerque chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Selling raw milk may be widely illegal, but drinking it is legal in every state. “There’s a disconnect between the laws on distribution and the laws on consumption,” says Peter Kennedy, an attorney for the Falls Church, Virginia-based Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. “If it’s really that dangerous, why isn’t it treated like drugs where possession is a crime?”

Possession may not be regulated, but production and distribution certainly are. In the past, farms have been shut down for peddling raw milk, and though it’s rare, farmers who sell have been arrested and even jailed. In April of 2008, police picked up Pennsylvania farmer Mark Nolt, a Mennonite and father of 10, for selling unprocessed milk and dairy products.

While it’s possible for untreated milk to pass state potability tests, it’s not easy, and it often requires expensive equipment to regulate the milk’s temperature. “You need to have that constant stirring to chill it [milk] down as quickly as possible,” says Alfred Reeb, the dairy division director at the New Mexico Department of Agriculture. “When it’s above 45 degrees Fahrenheit, the bacteria grows, grows, and grows – double every half hour.” Reeb says the state of New Mexico is willing to work with farmers, but it still requires all raw milk to bear a warning label, stating that it may contain disease-causing organisms. Only one farm in New Mexico is licensed to sell milk as it comes from the cow.

So while I’m not too worried about being busted on raw milk charges, I’m worried that my supplier could be. For her sake, and for the sake of all the other customers who rely on her, I'll watch my back and keep purchasing my milk under the table and in dark alleyways.

Story by Ross Burns. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in August 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008.