How to Use a Pill Testing Kit, According to Experts

For advice on how to get the most accurate results we asked a scientist, a dealer, and a partygoer.

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Apr 6 2017, 3:30am

This article is part of the VICE MDMA Census. See the results for cities all around Australia here. For a glossary of the different chemicals we identified, read this.

I remember once, when I was around 19, a friend bought some MDMA off a French backpacker in the smoking area of a Melbourne club. She was pretty sure she'd been ripped off. "I actually have no idea what this is," she admitted, grimacing as she unwrapped the tiny square of aluminium foil he'd given her. She nearly called it, until another friend dipped her finger into the powder, rubbed it into her gums, and declared , "Yeah, nah, it's definitely MD. And it's good."

Could a teenager who'd taken MD maybe a handful of times be able to tell not only what a particular drug was but also its purity, simply by taste? Of course not. But the reality is most of us are still just 19-year-olds sticking our fingers into unknown powders and hoping for the best. Heading out to clubs, parties, and festivals around Australia for the VICE MDMA Census we found most of you are buying your drugs from a friend. A few have a dealer "they trust."  Only a handful of people were actively testing their drugs, while even less said they understood what a commercially available testing kit is for.

So we've put this guide together to help people get the best results from their kits, while busting a few of the myths that came up when we were out surveying people. To collate this we talked to pill testing experts, dealers, and conscious partygoers but, it goes without saying, this is just a guide. Nothing we can tell you can ensure your drugs are 100 percent safe, and there's always a risk. But you knew that already.

The Basic Test

The most common test for MDMA is called a Marquis reagent test. It's a combination of formaldehyde and sulfuric acid, which you drop onto your sample. There are heaps of these test kits on the market. They are totally legal and you can buy them from shops like Off Ya Tree, some tobacconists, and online. For the VICE MDMA Census, we used EZ Test's single use MDMA kit because they were discrete enough get into a club. There are more extensive tests you can run, which we'll get into below, but they aren't as easy to slip into a bum bag.

There's sort of a "best practice" when it comes to using these kits. Firstly, according to chemist Guy Jones who works for Kosmicare in the UK, "Ideally, you would crush and homogenise a powder for testing to reduce the risk of one pill in a batch being bad and not being tested." While this isn't something they see very often in Europe, anecdotal evidence suggests Australian pills don't tend to be as well mixed.

As Guy explains, when the testing solution hits your drugs, a reaction happens at a molecular level, which causes the colour change you see. For MDMA, the Marquis reacts with a specific chemical group in the molecule called ethers. "The structure of a drug is obviously key to how it behaves in the brain and therefore the effects it has," Guy says. "MDMA has a distinct structure—if it didn't contain an ether it would not be MDMA. So if you know you are expecting MDMA and you get a result which corresponds to methylone, more than MDMA, then you know you don't have MDMA."

According to Guy, the most important step to take when you're testing your drugs is running them through multiple different reagent tests. Because a Marquis test will react to different chemical groups than, say, an Ehrlich reagent, doing multiple tests helps give a fuller picture of whether the molecule you're working with is actually MDMA—and warn you if there's an adulterant in there. 

"Testing with multiple reagents is a very useful tool as it vastly increases the chance that you will have one reagent which reacts strongly with any given adulterant," Guy explains. "Around 90 percent of adulterants react strongly with at least one of three tests, and about 95 percent react strongly with one of five tests. These remaining five percent are very uncommon."

Myth #1: You Don't Need to Test Your Drugs Because Your Dealer Already Did

Out testing for the VICE MDMA Census, we met quite a few people who didn't test their own drugs because they'd bought them from a dealer. A lot of you trusted your dealers because you hadn't had a bad experience before, or there was an ongoing relationship. But there was an underlying assumption that dealers have "quality control" procedures for the drugs they sell. To find out whether this was true, we spoke to a Victorian with links to the illicit drug trade, who we'll call Tim.

According to Tim, whether or not your dealer pill tests largely relies on what level they are at. "The guys buying smaller amounts and flogging 50 bags or a couple caps don't seem to test very much. The guys flipping [ounces] of MD seem to test more often, especially if it's a new source or there has been a report of dodgy stuff around." Some dealers go a step further: "I've had one person who even goes a bit further and gets lab testing done, which is above and beyond what most dealers have access to."

Typically though, Tim says dealers will just be using a Marquis test that you can buy from a shop. And because they are relying on these commercially available kits, they've got about as much scope to suss out adulterants as you do. And as Tim says, there are adulterants out there that can slip past Marquis tests—such as the caps people thought were MDMA, which hit Chapel Street back in January, killing three people.

"The NBOMe stuff had a small amount of MD in it, which can fool the tests that are typically used at street level," Tim explains. "Using NBOMe to lengthen your supply and increase your profits is straight up evil. Even from a financially pragmatic perspective it's fucking dumb. A dead client is worth nothing, and a client you made sick isn't coming back."

Level Up! More Advanced Tests

While a simple Marquis test can be good to get a baseline understanding of your drugs, there are many other tests available if you want to go deep. To learn more, I made a visit to someone who likes to party, but is very conscientious about harm reduction. Let's call them Alex. They told me pill testing helps to reduce their natural anxiety about taking drugs. And while MDMA isn't their drug of choice anymore, for the purposes of the MDMA Census we sat down to run some through a Clarichem kit, which gives you four separate reagent tests.

Our sample looked like that awful brown sugar-like batch that hit Chapel Street back in January. It actually looked wet. Alex popped on disposable gloves—"the reagents are actually super corrosive," they explained—and proceeded to pop pinhead-sized dots of the stuff onto a dinner plate. This is an important thing to remember about pill testing, you just need a small amount to run a test. It's not about giving up an entire $25 cap.

Once they'd portioned out four dots of the sample, Alex proceed to squeeze one or two drops of each reagent onto a separate drop. They worked in the same order as the comparison chart: Mandelin, then Marquis, Mecke, and Simon's A and B. As we explained above, each of these different reagents reacts with different chemical groups in your drugs. 

Working through each test helps you narrow down what's in your drugs. But, as Alex explains, the presence of some adulterants still might be covered up by a darker reaction, such as the purple-black that indicates MDMA.

If you're interested in even more in-depth tests that can pick up adulterants, they are available, although they can be labour intensive. "The ultimate tool to prevent false negatives is a technique called 'thin layer chromatography,'" Guy says. "This separates out each constituent in a mixture, and means that even if it is only present in a small amount then it will not be obscured by a majority component." Basically, this means even if there's only a small amount of adulterant in your sample, the test will be able to identify it. If you're keen to get into this level of detail, check out this video from Bunk Police, which sells these separation kits:

Myth #2: A "Positive" Result on a Pill Testing Kit Means Your Drugs Are "Pure"

One thing came up a lot when VICE was out pill testing: people thought a purple-black result on a Marquis kit meant their drugs were "pure" MDMA. This is just not the case. The easiest way to explain it is that if your sample turns purple, this "indicates the presence of MDMA." It definitely doesn't mean there isn't anything else in there. As Guy explains, it would take between 25–50 percent adulteration to really start confusing matters.

But when you're using a pill testing kit, a bad result can be more illuminating than a good one. "We are not just looking for the positive reaction but also for anything else that could indicate something is wrong. For example, if methylone was added to a sample of MDMA and not mixed properly then we would see the patches of yellow and purple," Guy says. "Even if we do not know exactly what is wrong, we know something is wrong, and that's more than we knew before. In this situation we insist that testers destroy the substance."

What Professional Pill Testing Can Tell You That Testing Kits Can't

According to a leaked police memo, the drugs that hit Chapel Street contained "a cocktail of illicit substances, including 4-Fluoroamphetamine (4-FA) and 25C-NBOMe." This combination highlights one weakness of commercially available pill testing kits. While they can sometimes pick up common adulterants, the rise of novel grey market psychotropics and other synthetics can prove hard to test for. This is just one reason many doctors, politicians, police, and drug experts are calling for professional pill testing to be introduced in Australia.

If Australia introduced a model similar to what's seen around Europe, as well as in the US and Canada, you could go to a pill testing tent at a festival and quickly get a full breakdown of what's inside your drugs. But it's an approach that relies on the police getting onboard—most services operate with a "police amnesty" that ensures no one gets arrested entering or leaving the testing tent. This also allows services to set up safe bins where people can dispose of their drugs, if they find they contain something they don't want to take.

There's one other thing professional pill testing can tell you, which we haven't yet broached in the MDMA Census, but it's particularly relevant in Australia. There have been recent reports of "super strength" MDMA circulating in Australia, containing two to three times the "standard" dose. As Dr David Caldicott told VICE, "The problem of contamination, I certainly don't think is the problem that it was ten years ago... But the problem of purity is more significant than it has ever been."

A pill testing kit can't really tell you whether there's 80 milligrams of MDMA in your cap or 300 mg. And while this might not be a huge deal if you're just taking one, most people we spoke to during the MDMA Census were double and triple dropping. There's a massive difference between taking 240 mg and 900 mg of MDMA. So when it comes to both strength and purity, professional pill testing services are really the only thing you can rely on.

After speaking to young people in eight cities across Australia for the MDMA Census, and being asked if we're narcs countless times, we've come back to the simple conclusion: if Australian politicians want young people to stop dying at music festivals they need to introduce legal pill testing services. Nothing else is as safe.

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Disclaimer: We aren't scientists. We ran a handful of tests, in a handful of cities, over the course of a few nights. These kits aren't going to identify the presence of some non-testable poison. Plus, there's no guarantee you have the same MD—drugs differ from place to place, night to night. But you already knew that.

Note: These articles were made possible by EZ Test who donated all testing kits free of charge.

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