In The Festival Harm Reduction Project series, we examine drug use at music festivals and clubs across the globe, and explore what artists, organizers, harm reduction groups, and concert-goers are doing to make nightlife safer.
Imagine this: You're digging through your sock drawer when you come upon a baggie of cocaine from who knows when. Or you unearth a pair of jeans from the dark corners of your closet and recover some ecstasy pills from that rave last year.
Is your stash still safe, after weeks or months of lying forgotten in your room? Because we care about you—and ourselves—we set out to find the answer. First I spoke with Richard Sachleben, a seasoned chemist of 40 years who has spent a good portion of his career developing and testing drugs for the pharmaceutical industry. I asked Sachleben: How long before illicit drugs expire?
He's a straight shooter: "There is no answer to your question," he says. "You can't choose an illicit drug and say what the shelf life is. It's absolutely not possible." For regulated medications, sure. Chemists like Sachleben manufacture these drugs under strict regulations set in place by the Food and Drug Administration. "Stability testing is one of the most important things we do," he says. "We ask two important questions: First, how fast is the drug breaking down? And second, what's it breaking down into?"
It takes months, sometimes several years, of storing drugs in controlled stability chambers, pulling samples, and checking for changes to determine the expiration date stamped on your bottle of over-the-counter or prescription meds. If any compound in the drug starts to change, it's no good anymore. "Some of the breakdown products are much more dangerous than the parent compound, so as soon as it starts breaking down, I immediately have to throw it out," Sachleben says.
Chemists working for the pharmaceutical industry conduct these tests in controlled environments. But that's not the case for whoever made the coke that's sitting in your drawer—the substances and impurities present there are anybody's guess. You simply don't have the information you need to determine its shelf life.
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European researchers looked into this and discovered vast differences from drug to drug and batch to batch. Their report, published last year, found that purity levels in cocaine samples ranged from 35 to 65 percent. Ecstasy tablets contained anywhere from 40 to 110 mg of 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) each. In fact, more than half of the ecstasy tablets tested in Austria, Switzerland, and Spain in 2009 contained no MDMA at all. The researchers also identified eight cutting agents, including caffeine, phenacetin, and levamisole, a common adulterant in cocaine.
Other research shows higher purity: In one recent study, experts tested samples bought online from the drug cryptomarket and found that not a single sample of LSD or ecstasy contained a cutting agent. They also found average purity levels of 72 percent in cocaine and an average of 133 mg MDMA per ecstasy pill.
Is it clear yet? We don't know what's packed into unregulated drugs, so experts can't say with complete certainty how long your coke or acid will last or what will happen to it when it's "old," whatever that means. But they can tell us this: Amphetamine, amphetamine derivatives (like MDMA), and synthetic molecules are incredibly stable and resistant to degradation, says study author Fernando Caudevilla, aka DoctorX, an illicit drugs expert heavily involved in Energy Control, an international project dedicated to recreational drug use safety.
It's possible that these drugs may undergo chemical changes over time, but your stash will likely just lose potency as the weeks and months tick by, Caudevilla says. Synthetic drugs like acid, coke, and ecstasy, and naturally grown drugs like mushrooms and weed, can retain their potency for months or even years if kept in the right conditions.
"Here's the rule of thumb, with all drugs, no matter how much stability data we have," Sachleben says. "These four things are bad: air, heat, light, and water." These elements are damaging enough to cause even incredibly stable substances, like the ones mentioned above, to lose their potency in as little as a few days or weeks, Caudevilla says.
Other factors can also speed up degradation: Improper drying techniques (for weed or shrooms) and certain cutting agents can weaken the strength of the drug more quickly. In that case, its unofficial shelf life is largely up to whoever manufactured your batch. You can do your part to make your stash last by keeping it in a sealed container, like a pill bottle or airtight baggie, in the fridge, says Sachleben, who now sits on the expert panel at the American Chemistry Society.
But if we're talking decades-old drugs? "If you have any Mr. Natural blotter papers from, like, 1972, put it in a little frame and hang it on the wall," Sachleben says. "The likelihood of anybody finding anything in there to prosecute you on is very small."
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