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Their primary purpose is to support other concert goers who choose to live drug-free, like themselves. They announce their presence with yellow balloons, signs, and the Wharf Rats information table. At a set break during Grateful Dead (and related) concerts they would hold 12-step style meetings but are not affiliated specifically with any 12-Step organization and have no requirement for attendance at one of their meetings besides providing some helpful sober fellowship.
The Wharf Rats began during the 1980s as a group of Deadheads under the name "The Wharf Rat Group of Alcoholics Anonymous". The Wharf Rats originally came from a small group of Narcotics Anonymous members who went to a Grateful Dead concert in Philadelphia and located each other by their Yellow balloons with the NA symbol drawn on in Magic Marker.  However due to operational differences they soon split off from Narcotics Anonymous, and are not affiliated with them, NA, or any other twelve-step program, though many of members of the Wharf Rats are members of AA, NA or other 12 step programs. The Wharf Rats see themselves as "a group of friends sharing a common bond, providing support, information and some traction in an otherwise slippery environment."
While the Wharf Rats originated at Grateful Dead concerts, they now have a presence at other jam band concerts as well. Similar groups named The Phellowship for Phish, The Gateway for Widespread Panic, The Jellyfish for The String Cheese Incident, Happy Hour Heroes for moe., the Digital Buddhas for The Disco Biscuits, and Better Than Before for The Werks (American Band) are all based on the Wharf Rats.
The name of this group comes from the Dead song "Wharf Rat", which contains the self-told story of August West, a down-and-out dockside wino.
- Epstein, Jonathon S. and Robert Sardiello. 1990. "The Wharf Rats: A Preliminary Examination of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Grateful Dead Head Phenomena." Deviant Behavior, 11: pp. 245-257.