How to Tell If Your Drugs Have Gone Bad
Look, that acid you've kept in your freezer for two years won't kill you. But there's a chance it won't work any more.
Image by Kitron Neuschatz
Depending on your perspective, finding an old-ass stash of drugs can be like digging up forgotten treasure, or stepping on a landmine. Maybe that months-old bag of coke you did one line of and then forgot about is still great—or maybe it's now about as powerful as the baby powder it was cut with. Perhaps that acid you left in your freezer for an entire year can still help you commune with the astral plane. But what if it does nothing—or even worse, ends up sending you to the hospital because it's transformed into some weird poison? You never know what too much time can do to anything—especially illegal drugs, which don't usually come with expiration dates.
Forensic chemist Dr. James Woodford explains that when we say a drug has "gone bad," its molecular structure has been altered by outside factors. "All drugs have a 3D structure," he says, "and if some little bond breaks, the whole thing will flatten out. The atoms are still there, but changes in molecular structure can cause them not to fit to the right receptors." Over time, factors such as heat, air, moisture, and light can cause drugs to develop impurities that affect their chemical makeup, leading to a loss in potency.
As a forensic chemist, Dr. Woodford knows his shit—he happens to hold the patent on the odor of cocaine, and in a 1994 court case he provided testimony explaining that cocaine and crack were chemically similar, which helped shrink the differences between sentencing for crack and coke offenses. He's collaborated with NORML for a report on the efficacy of drug dogs, and according to his website a court once identified him as "an expert in the field of marijuana identification"—a distinction we should all aspire to.
Woodford draws a distinction between essentially two classes of drugs: synthetic, and naturally occurring. Both are susceptible to degradation at the hands of light, heat, and humidity; however, "With synthetic drugs such as MDMA or methamphetamine, if they're in bottles in the dark, they'll last a long time." If drugs like these are left out in the open, they'll probably prove ineffective intoxicants—but not harmful ones.
Meanwhile, naturally occurring drugs like marijuana and psilocybin (the toxin found in mushrooms) are more vulnerable to the ravages of time because of the fragility of the organic matter in which they live. "There are stabilizers in the organic material that keep the drug components intact, but when the organic material breaks down and the stabilizers go bad, that leaves the drug component open to oxidation," Woodford says.
In other words, a bag of weed or magic mushrooms can go bad the same way that a head of lettuce or a portobello mushroom can. But those latter vegetables aren't protecting mind-altering chemicals with their cell structures, whereas when the drugs go bad, oxygen causes those mind-altering chemicals to go to shit.
When it comes to cocaine and heroin—drugs derived from plants that take the form of dry powders—it's a bit trickier. According to Dr. Woodford, if coca leaves are left out in the sun for too long after being harvested, they can dry out and decrease the potency of cocaine before the drug even hits the market. As for heroin: the opiate is a close enough relative of morphine that if it's left out for too long, it can actually turn into morphine. With these drugs, "If they've turned tan or brown, then you know they've gone bad."
LSD, is a different beast altogether. Woodford says that acid that's been added onto blotter paper tends to last longer than acid that's been added onto food—simply because food goes bad and paper doesn't. With blotter acid, just make sure the paper doesn't get wet or weak enough for the acid to oxidize, with Woodford recommending it to be stored "in the fridge or in the dark."
But what if someone's not sure if their acid's gone bad or not? "Shine a UV light on it," Dr. Woodford advises. "If it glows, it's still good." Still, if any psychonauts want to test out some potentially bunk acid, Woodford says to just go for it. "It's not like old LSD turns into poison. It just won't have any kick."
Another solid authority on this subject is Dr. Rick Doblin, a chemist who founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. He spends his days leading an FDA-approved study on a batch of MDMA that he and his team have preserved since 1985.
"It's still super pure—not even stored in a fridge," he beams, adding that all he and his colleagues have needed to preserve the drug is a sealed, dark-tinted bottle kept at room temperature. "It's all in how you store it," Doblin claims. "If we'd left our MDMA out in the heat, or if it had been in moisture, it could have gone bad."
Even if they're no longer effective, Doblin assures that stale drugs are usually harmless. "Most of the time old drugs just lose their purity. It's rare that they become dangerous." Still, once you get to the point where you're wondering if your drugs have gone bad, it's best not to take them—not out of any concerns for your safety, but more because you shouldn't fight the inevitable. "Time degrades us all," Dr. Doblin reminded me, and sometimes it's worth respecting that.
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Disclaimer: Drugs are bad and you shouldn't do them. This article is meant for entertainment purposes only.