Have you ever been to a hole-in-the-wall taco shop where, even though a passable health inspection grade is on display, you're not really sure what's going in your burrito? Buying drugs is kind of like that. You can gauge a dealer by reputation, but most of the time dealers don't even know exactly what's in the drugs they're selling.
Basically, there's no quality control for the market of illegal drugs. A 2013 report by Energy Control found that 38 percent of pills sold as ecstasy didn't contain any MDMA at all. Only about eight percent of what's sold as cocaine is totally pure; the rest is combined with additives like phenacetine, levamisole, caffeine; 17 percent of cocaine didn't have cocaine in it at all. That's basically like paying for filet mingnon and getting a slice of roast beef. Besides getting cheated out of high-quality drugs, there are also serious dangers to not knowing what's in your drugs, like the recent rise in lethal overdoses from heroin that's unknowingly laced with fentanyl.
That's where Dr. Fernando Caudevilla comes in. Meet him in his office in Madrid and Dr. Caudevilla is simply a Spanish family physician. But meet him on the internet and he morphs into Dr. X, a one-stop drug consultant who was once described as the "Roger Ebert of illegal drugs." In forums on the deep web, he offers practical advice about using illicit drugs; in a laboratory in Spain, he tests drug samples for purity, which people send him from around the world.
We spoke to Dr. Caudevilla/Dr. X in January for an article about buying drugs on Silk Road, but we wanted to know more about how he got involved in his work, so we spoke to him over Skype.
VICE: So you're a family doctor by day, and a drug-tester by night.
Dr. Fernando Caudevilla: Yes, but I do it in the day also. [Laughter] But yes, I work with an NGO called Energy Control to do these drug test programs. We do testing at parties or at raves that are colorimetric tests, which will give you information about whether there is a drug or there is not a drug. We also do another kind of drug testing that we do in the laboratory, where we can analyze the substance and know its composition.
So you can tell if you've got cocaine cut with chemicals, or heroin laced with fentanyl, or whatever. How did you get into this?
I joined the Energy Control team by a mixture of personal and professional interests in drugs, basically. I'm personally interested in experimenting with some drugs—using them wisely and with all scientific knowledge—and also I'm interested in them as a professional, as helping drug users is one of my fields of work.
Do people send in drugs from all around the world?
How is that legal?
In Spain, it's not forbidden to analyze the drugs. It's forbidden to sell drugs, or to give drugs to people, but not to analyze them. We view this as a prevention model. At Energy Control, we're not just giving people the drug composition, but also taking the opportunity to talk with the drug user and give him accurate information, objective information, about the drugs. Drug users feel that we are not judging them. We're not telling them, "Don't take drugs." We just accept the fact that people take drugs, and we try to give information so that drug use is less risky and more healthy.
So the goal is harm-reduction.
Yes. In this sense, testing drugs is one of the strategies we use. Drug testing is not about saying "this drug is good, this drug is bad." It's just to have the opportunity to be in contact with the user.
How often do people send in drugs that are not pure, or are not what they thought they were taking?
It depends on the drug, and where they got it from. If you go to the party and know the person selling the drugs, then you don't have as many problems. But if you buy a drug at a disco from a person you don't know, it's more probable that you'll get something impure. It happens a lot with prescription drugs. People who think that they are buying ecstasy are actually buying the medication from their grandmother.
Yikes. I'm sure that's disappointing.
It can be very harmful, too. Sometimes, that medication can be way more harmful than taking ecstasy.
You're on a lot of deep web forums under the name Dr. X, and you let users consult with you about their drug use. Why did you start that?
I started with this a year and a half ago, and now I've answered over a thousand different questions and had 30,000 visits. Similar to what I told you before, people have questions about their drugs, but health professionals will just say, "Drugs are bad." But that's not useful for them. People want to know the effects of drugs and their individual risks, the combination of drugs with prescription drugs, risks about having a particular health problem… I can answer all of these questions. I'm doing this almost every day.
That's amazing. How do you find the time to do this? I mean, you're a full-time doctor.
Yeah, I'm a full-time doctor! But it's maybe one or two hours a day online. Sometimes I answer three questions, sometimes five, sometimes zero. But I think it's also very interesting.
Do you charge a fee for your services?
Not at all. The lab testing is volunteer, and so are the internet question-and-answers. But I do accept donations, and some users have been very generous.
Can anyone send you a drug sample?
The program we were doing at first was just for Spain, and we do that for free [for Spaniards]. Now, we are accepting samples from all around the world. But it's a little more complicated. We ask for a little money for doing the testing service, but if you get in contact with Energy Control, you can find information about how to send in drugs to be tested here.
There's been a huge increase in people buying drugs online, with the expansion of the deep web and marketplaces like Silk Road. Do you think that's a safer way to buy drugs?
It's just different. These are still illegal markets, and if a market is illegal, there's no possible way to control it. But these kinds of markets, like Silk Road, have many interesting things—like the fact that you can give feedback about the products that you get, so the good vendors are easier to find. In general, that's better than what we had before. But obviously, they're not perfect.
Would you say you're an advocate of legalization?
Absolutely. The answer is yes, with no doubt. We will have to see what kind of legalization we like, though. Think about apples, tobacco, and antibiotics—these are three products that are legal, but legal in different ways. It's not the same to buy an apple than to buy alcohol or prescription drugs. We have to talk about what kind of legal state we'd like for drugs, but if drugs are dangerous, then that's the main reason that we should make them legal. If it's not legal, it can't be controlled.
That's a really good point. How would you want people to frame drug use, then?
Taking drugs is a human activity. People will always take drugs—some people take legal drugs, some people take illegal drugs. Drugs—both legal and illegal—have their problems. But I think that there are better ways to relate people to drugs than we have been doing. I think that the work that I do is just trying to prove this—there are different ways we can relate to drugs, and make good relations between people and drugs.
Follow Arielle Pardes on Twitter.