Drug-Checking at Festivals Isn't Meant to Stop You From Using

It could just make it significantly safer.

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Aug 25 2017, 12:00pm

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You can never quite be sure if that capsule of white powder your friend's brother's girlfriend's cousin's dealer gave you is actually molly, or what's considered pure MDMA. You likely spent about $20 on a standard 100 milligram dose, not to mention tens or hundreds of dollars on tickets to the concert or festival where you were planning to roll. The cost alone is enough motivation to have a good time, if it's the last thing you do. So what happens if you get your drugs tested on site, and it turns out that capsule of white powder isn't what you thought, or isn't guaranteed safe? Do you take it anyway?

Drug testing might give people a "false sense of security," as David Nutt, a British psychiatrist, psychopharmacologist, and former government official, recently told Thump. Testing drugs half an hour before someone plans on using them is a waste of time, he argued. Once most drug users are hell bent on getting high—be it on molly, acid, ketamine, or some other chemical—there's a decent chance they'll take the drug regardless of what a basic test kit says.

"Most people don't even know that these tests exist, and if they're doing it recreationally, I don't get the sense that people are too concerned about whether it's pure," says Ann, 27, a regular festival-goer and MDMA user who says he has considered ordering a testing kit to use at home. "They'll ask their dealer, but if the person says, 'Yeah, yeah, it's pure,' then they'll just trust them, which is obviously bullshit."

At a "side event" at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in March, Steve Müller, founder of Checkit!, a Vienna-based drug checking service, gave a presentation on how test results affect consumers' intentions. As long as they're not research chemicals, drugs tested with Checkit! fall into three categories: white for pure, yellow for when the drug is a known substance (but not what the consumer thought it was), and red for when the drug is unknown or dangerous.

When surveyed, 48 percent of service users whose drugs were tagged red said they would not consume it, while 34 percent said they would take less of the drug, and 8 percent said they would take it as usual, says Nazlee Maghsoudi, knowledge translation manager at the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy.

Checkit!, however, is far more advanced than most services in North America. The service uses a technology called GCMS—gas chromatography-mass spectrometry—which indicates a drug's potency and purity. It can also detect which other adulterants might be mixed in with a powder that's mainly, but not entirely, MDMA, ketamine, LSD, or cocaine. Most drug testing services in the United States, however, only detect the main ingredient in a pill, but provide no information on adulterants, purity, or potency.


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According to a recent Johns Hopkins study on ecstasy pill testing, 46 percent of consumers said they would take the drug if the test indicated that it contained MDMA. Another 26 percent said they would take it even if the drug tested negative for MDMA.

"This was novel in the sense that it negates and combats all the misperceived notions that drug-checking encourages drug use," says Missi Wooldridge, study author and founder of Healthy Nightlife LLC, a consulting service for event producers. "Contrary to popular belief, a lot of people in this environment do care about their health and safety and overall are healthy individuals," she says. "They don't intend to harm themselves or overdose—they're out there to have a positive experience." And much of the decision to take a drug also comes down to the consumer's experience level, she adds.

Shelby*, 23, a frequent festival-goer from Brooklyn, once took what she thought was MDMA at an underground psytrance party and recalls feeling "awfully strange" and "unusually speedy." With six years of psychedelic drug experience under her belt, she went home to test the rest of the batch. The "MDMA" turned out to be meth. "If I had known what it was, I wouldn't have taken it," she says.

"Advocates for inclusion of drug-checking at festivals argue [that] knowledge is power. Even if you don't want people to take the substances, they are. So the better informed they are, the safer they can be," says Stefanie Jones, director of the audience development at the Safer Partying campaign at the Drug Policy Alliance. If the drug comes up as a recognizable substance, but not what the consumer had expected—for instance when "MDMA" turns out to be the slightly more psychedelic MDA—it's at least an opportunity to have a conversation. The drug checkers can ask the consumer about their experience with say, MDA, and walk them through steps to stay safe if they go forward and take the drug, Jones says. "I think the whole point of drug education and harm reduction services is having those conversations to raise people's awareness and skepticism level."

Drug-checking doesn't foster a false sense of security—most people would take a drug anyways, even if the service wasn't available—but instead facilitates more informed decision-making, Maghsoudi says. For most "recreational" consumers, drug-checking services are the only interaction they have with harm reduction professionals, she adds, in contrast to dependent users who might regularly attend something like a needle exchange program.

"There's also a snowball effect: Individuals coming to drug-checking services are not just checking for themselves," Maghsoudi says. For instance, at the Boom Music Festival in Portugal, 86 percent of the samples tested were intended to be shared with friends. At that same festival, three quarters of people who submitted drugs that turned out to be bunk said they wouldn't take them, she says. "That's good news, but some people don't want to throw them out. They might give them away or sell the drug to make their money, or they might just throw it on the ground for someone else to pick up," says Joseph Palamar, associate professor of tobacco, alcohol, and drug use at NYU School of Medicine.

In a recent study, Palamar and his colleagues tested the hair samples of people who said they used ecstasy within the past year. The researchers compared what the subjects actually tested positive for with what they had reported using. "What we found was that people who said they had ever tested their ecstasy were at higher risk for testing positive for bath salts in their hair," he says. In fact, two-thirds of people who said they checked their ecstasy, tested positive for synthetic cathinones, or bath salts. That confirms that while most basic drug tests do in fact tell you the main ingredient in your pill or capsule, they'll often fail to detect adulterants.

Most of the messaging around drug-checking is designed to educate and mitigate risk, not to tell someone a substance is dangerous or safe, good or bad, explains Mitchell Gomez, executive director of DanceSafe, a drug testing service found at various events around the country. Some events are hesitant to allow onsite drug-checking—which is still controversial among nightlife producers. "No one is building $2 million lighting rigs for drunk people. If you're not doing onsite drug-checking, a string of ambulances leaving the event is also an admission that people are doing drugs," Gomez says. "So we try not to give people a false sense of security. There's no such thing as safe drug use, but there's such a thing as safer drug use."

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