This article is part of "Safe Sesh", a VICE harm reduction campaign produced in collaboration with The Loop and the Royal Society for Public Health. Read more from the editorial series here.
Brands run the world. By the time the average American child is three years old, they'll be able to recognise 100 brand logos. Likewise, when the average British teenager starts double-dropping pingers on a weekend they'll soon learn their Mitsubishis from their Teslas, their Skypes from their Spongebobs, their Anonymous masks from their puckering Donald Trumps.
Brands can be useful when they tell us something about a product's origin and quality, and the same goes for drugs. While it's true that ecstasy manufacturers frequently use similar or identical stamps to brand wildly different products, reviews of certain batches of the drug doing the rounds in a given place at a certain time can help to identify potentially dodgy pills. That can mean more than the difference between a great night and throwing up in the smoking area. Sometimes it can mean life or death.
That's where PillReports.net comes in. A bulletin board where anonymous users can post reviews and chemical tests of the pills they're being dealt, it has now collected some 37,435 reports and is visited by around 30,000 unique users every day from up to 160 different countries. The pleasingly low-tech site has been running since 2001, when it grew out of the drugs discussion forum Bluelight.org.
For nearly 16 years it's been run by Johnboy Davidson, an Australian Bluelight mod who had no background in drug campaigning when he took over day-to-day running of the site. "I was simply a user who wanted to be better educated," he says. "Since then I've become involved in starting peer-run harm reduction groups, including Enlighten, who were the first group to publicly test pills at events in Australia."
Davidson and a team of ten to 20 volunteer moderators scattered across the globe look after the running of PillReports, but for obvious reasons he has very little idea of who actually contributes the reviews and reports that populate the site. "We have absolutely no idea how many people have contributed," he says. "We're very serious about the anonymity of our users. We don't log IPs or capture any stats beyond very basic site views. Some usernames may contribute more reports than others, but there is such a turnover it's hard to make any real conclusions."
As well as posting reviews based on their personal experiences taking the drugs, PillReports users often also use chemical testing to check whether pills actually contain any MDMA or not. After applying a chemical known as a "reagent" to a sample of the pill, it will turn dark purple or black if MDMA or a similar substance (MDEA, MDA, collectively known on the site as MDxx for the sake of accuracy) is present. The reagent may also turn green in the case of 2-CB, orange in the case of speed or methamphetamine, or a variety of other colours if the pill contains something else.
"For ten or 15 years we've been pushing for more people to get testing kits, because they're objective," says Davidson. "You can go to your dealer and say: 'Let's test them together.' If they say they don't want to test them, then that tells you something straight away. They're not flawless, though. Ideally, you'd use infrared light spectroscopy, which places like the Netherlands use. But we don't all live in the Netherlands and we've got to do what we can do. Chemical tests are better than nothing."
While government-funded drug campaigns across the world have been happy to pour billions of pounds into supply reduction and demand reduction schemes, only a handful of countries have taken harm reduction seriously. That's because the people who set drugs policy tend to have a problem with anything that looks like a tacit acceptance that some people will always find a way to take drugs.
"There's no way to give access to this information without it helping everybody."
While PillReports is an independent site, Davidson says it has picked up a few unintended fans within police stations. "I was once sent an email by a policeman in Australia saying: 'Hey, you've blocked me from your website. I find it really useful because I work in police forensics. Could you please unblock me?'" he says with a laugh. "I had to say to him: 'I can't block people. You need to go and talk to your IT people because they've put some sort of NetNanny software on that's stopping you from doing your job.'
"We've always been about the idea that everybody should have access to this information, for whatever reason. I've had people point out that Pillreports is a great source of police information. I say: 'That's fine, as long as people don't die.' There's no way to give access to this information without it helping everybody."
That focus on the bottom line – that the most important thing is to stop people dying from taking unsafe pills cut with unidentifiable shit – is what makes PillReports such a vital resource. It's also apparently why no government or law enforcement agency has ever attempted to close it down. In fact, only one group has actively attacked PillReports: the brands.
"Pillreports has been running for about 18 years in one form or another and never had any legal problems, then in the last couple of years we've had two," says Davidson. "The first was that I got a full cease and desist letter sent to me from people claiming to be the copyright owners of the Nestle and Nescafe brands. We had some Nespresso-branded pills on the site that people had been reporting. They happened to be very strong pills that were going around the UK at the time. The letter said we needed to remove all pictures and all references to the pills. I said to them: 'No, it's not going to happen. I can't do that, because it would be putting people's lives in danger.' They came back again, so then I said: 'How about we remove all references to your trademarks, but I replace them with the words: 'Baby Formula Scandal Coffee Company'. None of those words are copyrighted, but funnily enough people will still know exactly who we're talking about. I got no reply after that. They got the message: 'Fuck off!'"
If a bad batch of Nespresso pods started killing people, the company would act swiftly to protect its brand while laws and regulations would be in place to protect people. In the drugs black market, the only recourse is PillReports: consumer champions for generation sesh.
"When the market still isn't telling people what they're putting in their mouths," says Davidson, "That's when we're there for them."
More from our Safe Sesh editorial series: