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We Asked a Doctor If Drugs Testing Kits Actually Work

Legality aside, drug testing is also controversial in a scientific sense.
Illustration by Kitron Neuschatz.

This article appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Music festivals are breeding grounds for bad decisions, but today, hoards of partiers use DIY drug-testing kits in an attempt to mitigate potentially poor choices. The testing process is simple: take a piece of your substance, drop a chemical solution on it, and wait to see what color shows up. Depending on what appears, you may have a better idea if your stuff is legit or potentially dangerous.


Some, like drugs awareness outfits Bunk Police and DanceSafe, swear these kits are a quick and effective way to see what you're putting in your body. Both groups are a regular presence at music festivals around the United States, whether in plain sight or behind the scenes. Still, since the RAVE Act was passed in 2003, drug testing has existed in a legal gray zone. If festival organizers and promoters allow drug testers to set up shop behind their gates—whether by selling kits or even handing out flyers—they themselves could face criminal charges if someone has an overdose or gets arrested for drug possession.

Legality aside, drug testing is also controversial in a scientific sense, and some critics argue there's not enough research to support them. To learn more about the scientific worth behind these mobile laboratories, we talked to veteran British psychiatrist, psychopharmacologist, and former government official David Nutt to see what he thinks of these mobile laboratories.

THUMP: How do testing kits work?
Dr. David Nutt: Drugs are chemicals that can be detected by their chemical interactions with other chemicals. The right chemical can, in theory, react with a drug to produce a signal— usually a change of color—to show what else is present.

Do you think they work in a functional sense?
The truth is that none of [the kits] are practically good, selective, and discriminatory. They might tell you what's in your pill or your powder, but they won't tell you everything it has inside it, or how much.

What can they be useful for?
If you're curious if your ecstasy has toxic substances like [the dangerous MDMA knockoff] Red Mitsubishi in it, they might be useful. We've seen some progress when big clubs have mass spectrometers (a kit where you fragment the contents of the substance and its parts) that fully work out the exact range of substances that might be in a pill. But that's quite tricky, and it takes a lot more analysis lot more analysis to work out how much is in it, rather than what is in it. You need to weigh the pill first, and work out what proportions of the pill you want to analyze, which is quite complicated and expensive. You can't do it on the side of the road.

If you're using a kit to test for MDMA, what happens if an unknown substance is in it?
It's impossible to say. That's the point.

What's your opinion of these kits?
I think they give you a false sense of security. Roadside testing for users half an hour before they are going to pop it is a complete waste of time and may do more harm than good. I'm an enthusiast for testing as it's done in the Netherlands and Wales, where you can go to a professional lab and find out exactly what you're getting.

What can be done to better drug testing kits?
The kits are promoting safe drug use, which I'm all in favor of, but whether they actually provide safety, I don't know. There's not enough evidence to recommend them. If you're going to take drugs, try to get them from a source that's reliable and you can go back to. If you're going to use something for the first time, take a tiny amount. It would be lovely to prepare the tests with a mass spectrum and see if they're compliant with trading standards. It's all a bit of a lottery—what we should be doing is treating [these drugs] like pharmaceuticals and having complete quality control.