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Drug Checking – How People Use It And What Do They Learn

Nov 27, 2017

With its origins going back 25 years in countries like the Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria (and even back to San Francisco in the late 1960s!), drug checking in all its guises is sweeping both hemispheres.

From state of the art technologies to home testing kits, it has been a long time since anything else has had such an impact on the way people use drugs and accessed information on what they’re taking. Drug checking may not be a ‘silver bullet’, since not all drug harms are caused by content and purity, but it has done wonders in opening honest conversations about keeping people safe among otherwise disparate groups such as law enforcement, harm reduction and club and festival promoters.

Of course knowing what is in your drug does not stop you being careless – for example, people still drink too much, mix alcohol with other drugs, etc. despite knowing the exact content and strength of alcoholic drinks.

But knowing what you are taking is a good start. With the growth of drug checking services at festivals and venues (services that offer real-time face-to-face drug testing usually in combination with advice of safer drug use and interpretation of the results), we can combine real-time drug composition information with pragmatic harm reduction information. That blend of drug and behaviour reflects the time old mantra of know your drug, set and setting. Its potential could be very big indeed.

While there are decades of experiences to draw on, there are complexities and many unanswered questions about drug checking. The GDS2016 mini survey showed that over two thirds of people who had used MDMA in the last year said they would probably use drug checking facilities if they were available.

At the same time, it showed that the most common form of testing technology available to people around the world were colour reagent kits. These tests have their place as long as their limitations are properly understood. For example, a negative Marquis test for MDMA will tell you that your pill does not contain MDMA, and we know that many people will avoid pills that do not contain the expected substance. Unfortunately, a positive reaction for MDxx (that is, an MDMA-like substance) cannot detect risky drug combinations with MDxx, like the toxic adulterants PMMA or NBOMe derivatives (see our video below for further details on this topic).