I spoke to two experts to work it out.
(Top photo: a reagent drug test. Photo: Michael Segalov)
Today is the inaugural Drug Checking Day. A collaboration between an international band of harm reduction organisations, it has been conceived to raise awareness of drug checking services across the planet and generally remind us all to keep educated about the drugs that we're chucking in our bodies. One of those organisations is The Loop, the UK company that undertook drug testing at Secret Garden Party and Kendal Calling last year, and are hopefully going to become a regular feature at our festivals over the coming years.
Last year, Newcastle Student Union started selling DIY drug checking kits in a bid to encourage undergrads to take a more proactive approach to harm reduction when they're on the sesh. After all, the frequent and sometimes lethal distribution of impure drugs has been well reported, whether it's PMA, PMMA or even actual concrete.
The kits themselves are straightforward to use: most come with a selection of Austro-Swiss sounding chemical reagents – Liebermann or Froehde or Mecke – which you then drip, separately, onto a small bit of your pill, powder or blotter. The colour it turns then matches (hopefully) with a colour on your chart, and you can (hopefully) affirm that it is indeed the drug you splashed the last dregs of your loan on.
The concept behind the kits is that they give the user a better insight into the drugs they're imbibing, and give them the chance to say no before its too late. The problems for critics lie in the fact the reagents a) don't test for all chemicals, b) tell you nothing about the strength of the drug, and c) don't come with any face-to-face harm reduction advice.
To work out whether they are in fact helpful or not, I spoke to Guy Jones, the founder of Reagent Tests UK, and Harry Sumnall, a professor in Substance Use for the Public Health Institute.
VICE: Let's start with the big one. Are DIY drug testing kits safe?
Guy Jones: Drugs themselves are not safe and will never be safe. What we are trying to do is make them safer, and any level of improvement of safety to drug users is, to me, a success. Because that results in, ideally, less injuries, less hospital admissions, less deaths. So I completely agree that they are not perfect.
Do you consider your kits to be a middle ground between no testing and the more comprehensive testing offered by The Loop at festivals last year?
Yeah, I guess. I actually work very closely with The Loop and, in a way, that's a terrible decision, because the more widespread their service becomes the less people have a need for reagent tests. But it's a passion project in which my goal is for users to to be safer, have better information and get it at accessible prices.
Surely a big part of the problem is people, who aren't chemists, not really being able to evaluate the results properly/ The colours on the chart you give out aren't cut and dry.
Absolutely, but I do a lot of Facebook outreach work. People can contact us through our page, and I'm an admin on the SeshSafety group. We'll often have people post pictures saying they don't understand why it hasn't gone the colour it should do for their drug. It's not so much that people don't know how to use the kit, it's that they are in such disbelief that their dealer has ripped them off. I also encourage users to email me for advice; people will send us results which we'll guide them through, like, "Yes, there's a little bit of purple but can you not see this big red patch as well? You need to be careful."
Who is your average user? I thought it might be the hook-up guy who always gets everyone's stuff in before a party.
It's actually not. It's young people – I would guess mostly 20 to 25, with an even male / female split – who don't have the experience and the confidence, and want to make as sure as possible that they're safe. I think it's getting cooler to be clued up, educated about it, rather than being hardcore and getting really messed up
What sort of thing do you regularly find?
We see a lot of Alpha PVP pretending to be MDMA, but it's about five times as strong and is normally cut and sold as MDMA. It creates a more paranoid high; people have a lot less of the desirable, empathogenic effects, so take more to compensate for that. They then can't sleep for a day, which has psychosis risks and isn't much fun.
Definitely not. Thanks, Guy!
VICE. Harry, same question: are DIY Drug Checking Kits safe?
Harry Sumnall: These kits are primarily orientated – although not exclusively – towards testing ecstasy-like drugs, but deaths from ecstasy-like drugs, including MDMA, are rare and often unpredictable. Looking at clinical cases and coroner's reports, deaths aren't usually – although there are of course always exceptions – a result of taking harmful substitute drugs or harmfully high doses, which current DIY colour change kits can't assess anyway.
So it's more that they're a bit redundant?
I'm not in any way downplaying the tragedy of these events, but there's little that could have been done to avoid the death apart from not taking the drug in the first place; testing wouldn't have helped these people.
Should it not be embraced as a stepping stone?
Supporting people to take action around drug use behaviours is to be encouraged, but for me many of the most serious recreational drug risks are beyond individual control. I think we should be directing our energies and limited resources into looking at actions that take a broader perspective. There's an argument to be made that it is the responsibility of the state to keep its citizens safe through actions such as market regulation, but because possession and supply of drugs is illegal, the state limits its responsibilities and obligations.
So they're not just better than nothing?
I've heard persuasive arguments for handing out DIY testing kits, with the justification that they're "better than nothing", but I don't necessarily agree with this point of view. I would prefer that, where offered, these kits are part of a wider package of harm reduction training and support and that they come with warnings about their limitations, but I'm not sure if that's affordable or feasible to implement
Do you think the average recreational user would bother with them?
It's important to bear in mind that most people who use drugs, whether regularly or experimentally, don't have a high level of drug or harm reduction "literacy". They don't meticulously plan their drug use… drug use is just an opportunistic leisure activity. Because of the size of this group, they're also going to be the ones most likely to experience death and other harms. How do you reach this group and get them engaged with discussions around drug use and potential health risks? Giving out DIY testing kits is not going to have much impact.