So you've got yourself a baggie of [insert your drug of choice here], but you want to make sure your drug is what you think it is: that's where drug checking comes in.
What is drug checking?
Drug checking is simply finding out what's really in the drugs you're planning to take. While prescription medicines undergo testing and quality control to make sure they only contain what’s on the label, drugs that are currently illegal don't come with the same guarantees.
Many people have bought drugs in New Zealand that have turned out to not be what they were sold as. In the summer of 2020/2021, 31% of MDMA checked turned out to be cathinones ('bath salts').
If you don't know what you're taking, you might not know how much to take or what to expect. Drug checking can help keep you safer by giving you accurate information about the substances you have.
Talking about drugs can be considered taboo, so taking your drugs to get them checked might feel a bit strange. We've broken down the drug checking process so you know what to expect.
What drugs can be checked?
Any chemical substance can be checked, including MDMA, ketamine, cocaine, methamphetamine, pressed pills, LSD (e.g. as liquid or tabs) pharmaceuticals (like Ritalin), supplements and other drugs you use to enhance your performance or image, and mystery baggies found on the ground.
Plant material like cannabis or shrooms is difficult to check with current processes.
How does drug checking work?
When you arrive at drug checking, one of our friendly team will greet you and ask what you've brought in to test. It's useful for us to know if you've had an unexpected experience with that drug, but you only need to give as much info as you feel comfy with.
The drug checker will then take a small sample of your substance – roughly 10mg, about a match head. If you've brought a pill, we'll document the size, shape and colour of it, so if it turns out to be something unexpected, we can warn others about that particular type of pill.
If you've brought in a tab, we'll cut a small wedge out of it. This is usually less than a quarter of a tab.
You're then given a ticket – hang onto it! This makes sure we’re giving you the right results. Then you're free to either wait there, or leave and come back later to collect your results.
Drug checkers only need about 10mg of your substance.
While you wait, we check your drugs. There are two main ways we do this:
Reagent testing involves putting a drop of a chemical onto your substance and waiting to see if that chemical changes colour. There are different types of drug checking chemicals for different drugs. You can get reagent tests to use at home from places like Cosmic. Read more here about using reagent tests at home.
An Ehrlich's reagent test on a small piece of LSD tab, showing colour change to purple
Drug checkers in New Zealand also use an infrared spectrometer – a scientific machine that gives a very accurate result. The spectrometer shines a spectrum of light onto your substance, and then takes a reading of what frequencies of light your substance absorbs. This gives a unique waveform impression of the substance, which is then matched against a database containing hundreds of (legal and currently illegal) substances.
Drug checkers record the results from both reagent testing and the spectrometer.
Spectrometer machine in action checking a substance.
You're then invited over to have a private chat about the results. We'll tell you what the reagent testing and spectrometer showed your substance was consistent with.
We'll ask you if you intend to take the drug and how you'll take it. We’ll also ask if you have any tips for other people about how to stay safer when using that drug, and we might share some with you. Find some quick tips on staying safer here.
If your drug turned out to be something different from what you thought it was, you can dispose of it there and then. You're not obliged to hand over any substance.
Sometimes, if the results for your substance turned out to be something inconclusive, new to us or particularly risky, we'll ask you for an extra sample to send away to ESR for extra testing.
Drug checkers from NZ Drug Foundation and KnowYourStuffNZ discuss results
Is drug checking anonymous?
We get that fear of being identified can be a barrier to coming to drug checking clinics. Drug checking is completely anonymous: legally, we can't record any identifying info, not even your name.
Is drug checking legal?
Drug checking is now permanently legal in Aotearoa, as of November 2021. That means that:
- Police can't use your presence at a drug checking clinic as evidence in drug prosecutions
- Drug checkers can handle your drugs without getting in trouble
- Drug checkers can legally be in possession of a sample of drugs to send it for further testing
And no, cops aren't going to be loitering outside the drug checking venue waiting to catch you. The police recognise that if people are going to take drugs, drug checking helps them be safer when doing so.
What's the difference between drug checking and drug testing?
We use the term 'drug checking’ to refer to services that help you find out if your drugs are what you think they are. 'Drug testing’ usually means urine tests that check if someone has taken drugs, for example in a workplace.
Who’s checking my drugs?
KnowYourStuffNZ, with support from the NZ Drug Foundation, have been providing drug checking in New Zealand for many years and have done an incredible job advocating for drug checking to be legalised.
In November 2021, the NZ Drug Foundation (who run The Level) was approved to provide drug checking, along with the NZ Needle Exchange. ESR supports us to do best-practice science and conducts extra testing of substances when needed.
Everyone who does drug checking is trained to have friendly, non-judgemental conversations about drug use. We're here to give you the info you need to stay safer, not to tell you what you can or can't do.
Many of us have our own experiences with drugs and know how alarming it can be when you get unexpected effects from a drug that turns out to be different from what it was sold as. We do regular training to keep informed about emerging drug trends.
That said, you might bring in drugs we've never encountered before. That's why it's a two-way exchange of information – we encourage you to share your own knowledge and experience.
The Level Community Activator Ngaire reflects on how learning about harm reduction could have helped in her earlier life.
A new report shows that deaths from drug overdoses have risen 54% over the past five years. We’re digging into the facts to find out what these can teach us about staying safer.
A lack of meaningful research has created a void of understanding about how a large portion of our population uses and doesn’t use drugs. This piece was originally published on The Spinoff by Naomii Seah.