Drug testing and harm reduction, an altruistic approach to drug education.

An assortment of ecstasy tablets Source: Dazed Digital

Illicit substances or illegal drugs operate in a peculiar area of our collective cultural zeitgeist here in Britain, from cannabis to cocaine to MDMA no one takes drugs quite like the British. We top all the European surveys on recreational drug use, but we also have some of the toughest laws regarding these substances in western Europe; in countries such as Spain, Portugal and The Netherlands soft drugs are decriminalised, whilst in The UK you can receive a sentence of up to five years in prison for possession of Cannabis.

For years recreational drug use has been a taboo topic of conversation, and education surrounding the issue has followed the lines of ‘These are drugs, they will kill you and if you don’t kill you, you will be imprisoned for associating yourself with them.”
This is a topic that should not be taken lightly with 3,674 deaths being attributed to drug poisoning in the UK in 2016 alone, with the mortality rate being the highest ever recorded with 43.8 deaths per million of the population.

In regards to certain taboos, especially those that are in regards to areas of indulgence, social attitudes change over time when evidence-based reasoning outweighs prejudice, fear or ignorance. The Prohibition era in the United States may have occurred nearly a century ago but many of the truths learned from denying people access to inebriants, ring true today on the subject of drug prohibition and criminalisation.

Progress can never be made without deviation from the norm and alternative drug education is available online, on sites such as Reddit, Pill Report and Erowid to name a few. These sites have given rise to an online community to, allowing people to share their drug stories, exchange substance knowledge and most importantly promote drug safety and harm reduction methods.

A popular, easy and cheap method of reducing the risks associated with illicit substances is to test your substances; with home testing kits being easily available online for the general public, even being sold on Amazon, young people are for the first time testing the purity of their drugs before consumption.

Drug testing reagent.
Source: Festival Sherpa


To see if these online tools were being utilised correctly by today’s drug users, we spoke to a number of students about the safety precautions they exercise before taking illicit substances.

Robert (not his real name) started taking illegal substances at the age of sixteen, starting with Cannabis, but when he moved to University he began to experiment more with recreational drug use. At the age of nineteen, he had used several Class-A substances including Cocaine, LSD and Ecstasy, all of which he had purchased from supposedly reputable vendors on the so-called ‘Darknet’.

Have you ever tested any of your substances before using them?

Yeah loads of times, back in my old house I used to order off the darknet and I discovered about testing as people in the comments section would talk about ‘Tried and tested’, so I just asked them where they got their test kits. It opened up the idea that there were loads of different ways to test almost any drug you took and anything we were ordering off a vendor for the first time we would test the drugs to test the absolute purity.

We would regularly buy test kits, they’re so cheap and in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t add too much money and it adds a layer of security and it’s just a safer mindset to adopt when taking stuff.

Do you think buying pills off the darknet is safer than buying off traditional dealers?

“I would say almost one hundred percent yes. I just googled how to get on it, all the correct safety precautions to take (whilst using the darknet), yes I’m breaking the law but I feel a lot safer doing it this way than picking up a hard drug such as ecstasy you know that could be a potentially dangerous situation you are putting yourself in. Going through the darknet is a safer, more secure way that will lead you to getting what you want at a cheaper price; you cut the middleman out of the equation essentially.”

Students aren’t just testing their drugs, others are on the front line in the battle against breaking the taboo surrounding the topic and wish to bring a logical, common sense approach to the forefront of the drug education conversation. Drugs and Me, a website set up by students at University College London who saw a gap in the market for unbiased information on illicit substances that took a scientific stand on the matter, rather than a political or ideological one.

How did your organisation ‘Drugs and me’ begin, what prompted you to create a platform for alternative drug education?

Pablo: I studied pharmacology at UCL and along with Ivan and Gabriel we realised that the current drug policies are not based on any science at all; just because a drug is illegal does not mean it is more harmful, in fact, a lot of the legal drugs are far more harmful than the ones that are illegal.

We started off with the idea of making a website to provide evidence-based and unbiased information as a lot of the other websites out there, such as talk to frank have a clear message which is ‘don’t take drugs’ which just doesn’t work. We decided to just provide information so that people could make their own decisions and make better decisions with more knowledge.

You have been setting up workshops in schools teaching young adults about drug alternative safety how did that come about?

Ivan: Yeah, we applied for this volunteering scheme with the UCL students union as one of our aims is to translate and transform what we have on the website into workshops in order to give concise and scientifically accurate to sixth formers and the union is funding and supporting us so we hope to be working with one or two schools by the end of the term.

Authur: We are running a pilot this year, trying to see how it will work, learning about DBS checks and the whole faff associated with working in schools. Also trying to get the actual workshop set up, seeing what techniques work, we’ve been in contact with various people who have done similar projects it’s been pretty interesting so far.

The Uk has the highest rate of recreational drug use anywhere in Europe, what do you think is fueling this?

Pablo: It’s kind of a problem with bravado, you know people trying to take as much as possible, which you certainly don’t see in many other countries. ??The main issue is the lack of education and the lack of openness, wherein other countries people speak quite freely of drug use. In the UK there seems to be quite a lot of stigma surrounding it, that leads to less information, which leads to bad decisions such as increased drug consumption.

Culturally do you think we have taken the wrong approach to drug education?

Arthur: From all the people that we have spoken to it seems like there was a time when there was a better approach to it; we spoke to this guy who was involved with Durham City Council in the delivery of PSAT, which is an extra-curricular activity that teaches life skills and within that there were topics such as drug education, It has seen a lot of funding cuts at the moment and people are very disappointed by that.

Everything points towards that the techniques that have been used being quite bad i.e police scare tactics, it increases drug use. They would tour people who used to have problematic drug who’d been in prison and they would come into classrooms and it’s showing that, that too is counter productive as it’s glorifying the whole thing.

People got the idea that they could just have drug problems and then have a sweet job chatting to people having a good time. I think people are now coming around to the idea that prohibition isn’t working very well and that exactly why thing such as Drugs and Me are coming up.

Pablo: Also, a lot of institutions have a zero tolerance drugs policy which is insane because so many students, especially in the UK take drugs, they are completely ignoring the fact that this is happening, so there is a wrong approach to education because there is no education.

What would your one piece of advice to someone who is set on partaking in recreational drug use?

Pablo: Go to ‘Drugs and Me! Do a lot of research beforehand on what you are taking and the risks associated with it. The fact that these substances are not controlled means that whatever you have is going to vary from batch to batch, things that are below regulation you have to be very sure of the source for example.

Arthur: Be very critical of your sources, make the difference between anecdotal evidence and tried and tested information, going on forums might not give you the best information, it could give you an idea but a lot of it could be nonsense.

Pablo: Some really good advice that the Global Drugs Survey put out was, ‘Don’t be daft, start with half’.

Grassroots movements such as Drugs and Me are an essential part of what is driving cultural change; by providing unbiased information in a palatable and user-friendly format the topic of drug use no longer seems as a taboo activity rather an individual’s educated choice about what they put in their body.

A group that has been making tremendous strides in recent years is The Loop, a non-profit interest community ran by volunteers that provide credible and accurate drug advice at clubs and festivals in the name of harm reduction. Chris Brady is the harm reduction coordinator for the Loop, having worked alongside the police, clubs, festivals and local councils, Chris advocates for a more altruistic approach to drug safety.

“We provide welfare support at clubs and festivals where we will look after people, say people who are experiencing negative effects due to drug or alcohol use; usually, people who are not sick enough to be seen by medics but aren’t well enough to be out in the club or festival by their own

We have a team of chemists involved and we provide back of house testing, which is where clubs will bring us anything that has been confiscated at the door or by anyone in there and that will give us an idea of what’s about the club.Last year we started doing front-of-house testing at two UK festivals, where people could bring their drugs to The Loop, our chemists would test the drugs and then they will be given the results by a trained drugs worker. This is part of the 15-minute harm reduction drugs package, we look at wider drug use, give them results back and discuss ways they could possibly reduce the risk associated with using them.”

How do you actually test the illicit substances?

“At street levels, we use laser spectrometry, which basically shines a ray of infrared light onto the sample and the way the sample reflects light will give you an indication of what’s actually in that sample. We also use reagent testing, which is something people do at home, wherein you drop a chemical onto the sample and the colour the sample turn will give you an indication of what’s in it.

Last year we used an MDMA extraction test wherein our chemists isolated the MDMA in a pill so we could figure out how much is in the pill and that is important as we are as concerned about high doses as we are about contaminated MDMA.”

MDMA & Ecstasy deaths are at an all-time high in the UK, what do you think is fueling this, is that drug dealers are making strong and stronger pills or is it lack of education when it comes down to using these substances?

“It’s difficult to say, and both points that you have made are valid, but obviously a few years ago we were concerned about pills being cut with PMA, which is a similar drug to MDMA and in similar doses it would raise the body temperature higher and also take longer for the effects to come on. However, we are concerned at the moment, not as much about contaminated MDMA but strong ecstasy pills, if you look at the Erowid Vaults which is a great website for all sorts of drug information they have reference point about what would be reasonable doses for people to take for MDMA. The average does is 80 – 120mg of MDMA, some of the pills we have tested have been coming in at over 250 milligrammes which is a very high dose.

We are concerned about that amount of MDMA being present in pills, some people who are double dropping taking two pills are once, they are putting themselves at risk. One of the main things that we talk about when it comes to ecstasy tablets is ‘Start low and go slow’, always start with a quarter or a half, give it at least an hour and wait for what the effects are like before you carry on.

Something we’ve tried to promote is a crush, dab, wait approach where we advise people to crush their MDMA into as fine a powder as they can, then do dab the end of their finger in and that works out at about 100mg, which would be an average ecstasy tablet. So you crush it, you dab it and then wait at least an hour if not two to see what the effects are like before redosing and while we can’t entirely say that that is a safe way of doing it, it is a way of reducing the risk.

I’ve seen people just take a lump out of a bag, having no idea how much it is, no idea how much it weighs and just swallowing it; it’s about being prepared for it and thinking about what you are doing, taking responsibility for what you are doing and doing research into you can reduce the risks involved.”

Do you think culturally we have taken the wrong approach to drug education?

“Well, what I think is at the street levels on what you would call prevention when you are looking at drug use; you have primary prevention which is stopping drug use before it starts; you have secondary prevention which is focused on reducing the harm associated with drug use and you have tertiary prevention which is helping someone who has a problem with drug use.

Now primary prevention is stopping people before they start, now I don’t want to go into a school full of ten years olds and start talking about how to reduce the risks of MDMA, at that sort of age you need to be looking at ways to stop people starting drugs. The people we work with have already chosen to take drugs, now that is the secondary prevention stage which is the harm reduction stage.

It’s a difficult question, you have the politics involved with it, the Government for better or for worse don’t want to be seen condoning any sort of drug use apart from tobacco, alcohol and legal drugs where they are happy enough to take the taxes from.
Is it up to me to tell young that they shouldn’t take drugs, absolutely not I don’t think there is anything wrong with advising people, you know if you have never done drugs you don’t have to take drugs but that choice has to be a choice. It’s difficult to say if we have a cultural problem with it, but what I would say telling people ‘Don’t take drugs’, doesn’t seem to work for a lot of people.

I’m of a similar age to Leah Betts, who was one of the first high-profile ecstasy deaths when I was in my late teens and the advice given after that tragic incident was; ‘Don’t take an ecstasy tablet if you take one you will die’. When a young person gets that message, they may follow that for a little while and they may believe that message but once they see their friends going out and taking ecstasy and not dying the message begins to mean a little less.

The danger is that you have to give out realistic information out there because if somebody gets switched off from one message are they going to get switched off all the messages we are trying to give people?

That really is a potential issue, certainly, I don’t think scare tactics work as people will just turn off to whatever you try and tell them, so for For me it’s important to be realistic with, the risks associated with drugs. There is no safe way of taking drugs, as there are risks involved with everything however we need to be realistic about it.”

What are the future plans for The Loop and how do you see the organisation moving forward?

“Hopefully, we are planning on extending the drug testing programme to a number of other festivals this year, we did Secret Garden Party & Kendal Calling last year. I can’t say which festivals we will be doing as it is my understanding at the moment that no one has signed off on it and that negotiations are ongoing. One of the main problems is that there are so many people involved in it, you have to get the okay from so many people, the police, festival organisers and local councils who license these events.

One thing I will say is that the police have been fantastic at the two festivals that we did last year, they seem to be realistic, they might not be waving the flag for us, they can see that we are trying to make a difference and they have been very supportive. There are a few things in the pipeline, I don’t want to jinx anything by saying which festivals we may or may not be doing but once we have everything confirmed we will but the information out via our Facebook & Twitter feeds.

We certainly want to expand our front-of-house testing, also we are looking at expanding our training, just before Christmas while Fabric was still closed and they were waiting to reopen, myself and others went down and we trained their management on welfare and drug awareness. That is something we are very much interested in doing, getting into clubs and training the staff about what to look out for, how to run a welfare service, all the things that can help protect people.

Fabric Nightclub was closed from September to December 2016 due to drug related deaths of two people.


One of the things that came out of the Fabric training was that they got a real understanding that it is not just the job of the welfare people, it’s everyone who works in the club along with the patrons, they all have a responsibility to look after each other. One of the things we do say is, just look after your mates, be aware where each other might be, arrange a meeting place and point if you get split up.

We do have a collective responsibility to look after each other, it’s not good enough to go to a festival and take a load of drugs and expect someone like The Loop to look after you. You have a responsibility to look after your mates and we will be there to pick up the pieces if things don’t go right and we will try and look after you but people do have a responsibility to look after themselves as well. To answer the question, we’re looking to expand the drug testing, expand the training that is what we are looking at doing over the next few months.

I can completely understand people’s reticence to support us and allow us to do it, but what my hope is that the more we do it, the more it becomes part of the club and festival scenes and we are certainly not saying that we are going to stop all your drug related problems.
It’s just something else that we can try to reduce the risks involved make sure everyone gets home from the event safe.”

The Uk has taken massive cultural steps in the last few years in regards to drug education, where it’s grassroots organisations such as ‘Drugs and Me’, or more established entities such as The Loop, it seems that there is a demand for alternative drug education is beginning to be met. Drug taking is a personal choice, it should be a choice made on reason and understanding of the substances the individual is dealing with, rather than outdated attitudes that all drugs will lead to dependency, death or imprisonment.

The single most important thing is that people are being safe and practising harm reduction methods; whether is be testing the substance before consumption or simply doing researching online on sight such as Pill Report or Talk To Frank.

With home drug testing becoming commonplace among contemporary recreational users, perhaps we are seeing a pragmatic shift in self-aware drug safety that can only benefit consumers and fiscally mar dealers who purposely cut substances with harmful agents.
In the overwhelming age of information in which we live, the internet disavows ignorance, a simple google search could be the difference between thinking you have a relatively safe pill and knowing you have one from a harmful batch.


David Aston

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