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.
Taking drugs in 2017 is more dangerous than it has ever been. If you're one of England and Wales' estimated 2.7 million drug users, you're essentially nothing more than a human guinea pig in an age of more than 300 new substances, triple-strength MDMA pills and high-purity classics, an entire class of deadly knock-offs and the corporeal roulette of long-term health consequences. The majority of recreational drug users don't have a bad time on a night out, of course, but some do – and the odds have never been so stacked against them.
The government's position is that we are winning the war on drugs, because overall drug use – even among the 16-24s – is in steady decline, and has been for years, according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the damage done by drugs, because on that front, nobody's winning. Deaths related to drug misuse have risen 48 percent in ten years, to their highest level since records began in 1993, NHS statistics show. Illicit drug poisonings are up 51 percent over the same period, and drug-related mental health hospital admissions are up 11 percent.
If you happen to be one of the million-odd 16-24 year-olds who experiments with drugs – despite the state's insistence that you're not really into it any more – then you're in a pretty precarious position. The first step in harm reduction is to know what you're taking. And currently, the only way to do that – if you're not at a festival offering testing via The Loop – is to pack your drugs off to a tiny laboratory in the south-east corner of Wales.
WEDINOS is the UK's only year-round drug submission and testing facility. The Cardiff-based lab has a unique insight into the UK's drug habits, because it invites users from all over the UK to submit samples. In the last year alone, they've received about 1,600, and there are currently 4,650 reports in their online database.
Since 2013, they have identified 336 unique drugs in the UK market – a direct consequence of the spread of New Psychoactive Substances (NPSs), and one of the main reasons that director Josie Smith believes that taking drugs is more dangerous now than it has ever been.
"We were dealing with the five main drugs for most of my career," says Smith. "[But] we're now dealing with many different drugs, and it's the sheer combination within a given sample of substances that I think is new and different and more dangerous."
Little is known about the molecular effects of NPSs, for the simple reason that they remain largely untested. Smith says that this proliferation of new substances over the last seven years or so has also coincided with an unprecedented rise in the purity of the classics: MDMA, cocaine, heroin – which is why you're seeing so many warnings about super-strength pills at the moment.
The picture that WEDINOS paints is of a competitive and diverse drugs market that contains higher purity versions of drugs like MDMA, cocaine and heroin – but also a market in which these well-known drugs may be adulterated or substituted with NPSs (where, in the past, they may have been cut with a limited palette of amphetamines and inert compounds).
Browsing through WEDINOS' sample results is a sobering education in the adulterants and substitutions dealers use.
In its 2017 listings alone, MDMA contained ephylone (bath salts); diazepam contained the NPS etizolam, and occasionally sleeping pills; a morphine tablet was actually oxycodone; Ritalin contained the cheaper study aid modafinil; cannabis was contaminated with synthetic cannabinoids; mephedrone contained mexedrone.
Some of the substitutions have proved deadly. In March this year, samples of fentanyl – an opioid 50 times stronger than heroin – actually contained carfentanyl, a drug 100 times stronger that is fuelling an overdose epidemic in the US.
"Some of the samples that we've received that contained fentanyl were sold as white heroin," says Smith, referencing samples from Birmingham that caused overdoses and at least one death. White heroin does exist, but as the drug's rare salt form. Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, so couldn't be substituted like-for-like without causing an overdose. WEDINOS first tested it in 2014, and has identified six fentanyl variations in the UK market.
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LSD, a drug that is pretty difficult to overdose on, frequently contained drugs from the NBOMe class – a well-known and dangerous substitution that carries the risk of a terrifying overdose and an agonising death.
MDMA contained a whole range of different stimulants. One sample, from 2013, contained five different NPSs (and caffeine and sugar for good measure): BZP, TFMPP, 2-aminoindane, Diethyltryptamine and MDAI. Pressed pills are generally purer (even if the doses, at 200 to 330mg, can be neurotoxic). But some contain PMA, a notorious substitute that has claimed several lives in the UK.
"We have tabs, we have pills that are sold in exactly the same way and contain different substances," says Smith.
NPSs also seem to be used as additives to boost the potency of classics. The Holy Grail for dealers has long been a synthetic alternative to cocaine. You've probably never heard of ethylphenidate – a stimulant that produces a speedy, uncomfortable high – but it was a regular in cocaine substitutes like Benzo Fury and Gogaine, until the legal highs ban in May of 2016.
"We didn't see it for a while," says Dean Acreman, the project manager for WEDINOS, "and then when we did see it start to come back into WEDINOS it was in samples of cocaine."
"People are buying [cocaine and ethylphenidate] separately and marketing it as cocaine-plus," adds Smith.
Ethylphenidate is an analogue of methylphenidate, which is better known as Ritalin. That does not mean it's safe. One of its most notorious documented effects is chronic testicle pain.
For every drug currently on the market, there is at least one New Psychoactive Substance that is being sold in its place. And that substance – whether it's an NBOMe for LSD, PMA for MDMA, fentanyl for heroin, ethylphenidate for cocaine – is usually more dangerous.
Submitting to WEDINOS is anonymous and uncomplicated. The lab requires no more than a speck of any substance for testing, and it can be sent through the mail using a printable form. According to Smith, samples may be posted providing the sender can't be sure of what it is they're mailing. It is illegal to knowingly mail a controlled drug – but since you can't be sure your cocaine actually contains cocaine, you are free to send it without fear of repercussions.
In addition, the Home Office has provided WEDINOS with an exemption from laws that would ordinarily forbid its handling of controlled drugs. "We have support right across the board, from the police, from prisons, from the ambulance," says Smith.
It is run on a shoestring by four full-time employees, at a cost of just £100,000 a year, which is funded directly by the Welsh government (currently formed by Welsh Labour, which has control over health services thanks to devolved powers). All of its submissions are filed and analysed by Forensic Analyst Mia Riddle and Dr Andrew Westwell, a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry.
Many of WEDINOS' samples come from prisons, which have a problem with a range of drugs – but particularly synthetic cannabinoids, or Spice.
Until the Psychoactive Substances Act came into force in May of 2016, Spice was sold legally at head shops. Acreman, a former Metropolitan police officer, shows me a folder full of colourful Spice packaging – each containing up to six synthetic cannabinoids.
"This is my personal favourite," he says, showing me a packet with "organic" and "100% natural" printed across the front. "You read this first, and then you find that there's three synthetic cannabinoids in there."
The branding suggests standards. But Spice is a DIY drug, manufactured in the UK by amateurs, spraying dried herbs with a chemical solution made with cheap powders imported from China. There is no Spice culture. There are no Spice sommeliers conjuring up the best blends for mass consumption. A combination of several synthetic cannabinoids can only have one purpose: to get the user as fucked up as possible.
"It is nothing like legal cannabis. It is an extraordinary class of drug," says Smith.
As the UK drugs market pivots away from legal highs, following the passing of the New Psychoactive Substances Act last year, WEDINOS also serves as an important bellwether for new drug trends, and Smith believes that downers are about to have their moment in the sun.
"I think that what we are seeing and may continue to see is an increase in opioid analgesics and more frequent and prolonged use of those types of medications, but for reasons other than medical," says Smith, pointing to the rise in the use of tramadol.
At the recent launch of the new UK drug strategy, the government outlined its "evidence-based approach to preventing drug harms". Needless to say, drug testing did not feature.
Theresa May is never going to ask the nation to chip its pills into a Jiffy bag, but WEDINOS has quietly survived as a nod to the empirical understanding that one of the best ways to mitigate drug harms is through drug testing.
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