Why should you check your drugs before you take them?

In an illegal drug market, there is always a risk that the drugs you buy are not what you think they are. In 2020, there was a rise in drugs being mixed with other drugs or being sold as something they weren’t. In the summer of 2020/21, almost 50% of MDMA tested turned out to be the synthetic cathinone eutylone (also known as bath salts). This can happen with many different drugs. Synthetic cannabinoids can be sold as real cannabis and NBOMe can be sold as LSD (acid), while drugs like cocaine can have more fillers like creatine or lactose in them then actual cocaine. This could happen because of a shortage of a drug or because the drug has gone through many hands and been ‘cut’ with other things in the process.

Manufacturers may also choose to use more dangerous drugs like synthetic cathinones because they are cheaper to import and carry less legal punishment for being caught. This can lead to people having unpleasant and unexpected experiences because their drug is not what they think it is.

Photo of crowd at a concertPhoto by janilson furtado on Unsplash

Reagent testing

Reagent tests are liquid chemicals that are dropped onto a small amount of a drug to detect what is in it. There are different types of reagent tests for different drugs, such as Marquis, which is commonly used to test MDMA. In New Zealand, reagent tests can be bought from places like The Hemp Store and Cosmic. 

Reagent tests will usually not tell you the purity of the drug – just whether or not the drug is present. For example, if you test MDMA, the reagent will turn a certain colour to tell you there is MDMA in the pill or powder. However, the pill or powder could still contain other drugs like synthetic cathinones (bath salts), which the test does not identify. Sometimes, there are several reagents you can use to test one drug, which can help you feel more confident that your drug is what you think it is. Some drugs like LSD can only be tested by reagents and not a drug checking spectrometer (the Ehrlich reagent is used for this).

Reagents may not be the best way to test drugs, but they are fairly cheap and easy to use. They are also very accessible to people in New Zealand and can easily be purchased and used at home. If you don’t have access to a drug checking service, reagents are a good option to consider.

Drug checking service

Drug checking is a free and confidential service that checks the safety of drugs by using a spectrometer and reagent tests. Drug checking is the most reliable way to see what is in your drugs in New Zealand and helps people to make more informed decisions about what they use.

Drug checking is legal in New Zealand. Currently, KnowYourStuffNZ is the only provider that is able to provide this service under this . You can follow their social media to find out when they are doing drug checking. Drug checking services don’t take any of your details and they are not able to take your drugs off you, even if it is a dangerous drug.

A spectrometer is a machine that tests drugs and compares them against a large database of samples. It can tell you if the drug is mixed with anything else or if it is an entirely different drug altogether.

Photo of drug checking equipment

Spectrometers can test many different drugs but won’t be able to test plant material like cannabis or mushrooms. Sometimes, drugs like synthetic cannabis are also sprayed onto plant material and cannot be detected by the spectrometer. LSD can’t be tested with the spectrometer but can be tested with reagent tests (see above). Liquids like GHB and GBL can be tested, but if they are too watered down, the spectrometer may not be able to give an accurate reading.

The same goes for any other drug that is dissolved in water. Pills can be tested, but they must be broken in half and have some of the drug scraped out from the middle. Sometimes, the spectrometer can’t give a reading for pills if they contain too much filler and not much of the active ingredient in the drug. This is more of an issue for prescription pills like benzodiazepines than pressed pills like MDMA.

  • Once you enter the room, the drug checking progress usually takes 15 minutes.
  • You enter the venue and agree to the terms of use. There are always volunteers on site to answer questions. You wait in line for your turn to enter the room with the spectrometer. You won’t be asked to provide any personal details.
  • When you enter the room, you will be asked a few questions, including what drug you think you might have. Reagent tests may be used first. A pin-head sized sample of the drug will be taken (or shaved off from the middle if it is a pill). If it is a tab of LSD, a small slice will be taken from the middle. Depending on the drug, it may be tested by one or two reagents. When the reagent changes colour, the results will be explained to you.

  • If you plan on injecting the drug, a fentanyl test will be done. This takes a little longer but still only uses a small amount of the drug.
  • Your drugs will then be tested using the spectrometer, usually called the ‘spec’. A pin-head sized sample will be taken (and crushed if it is a pill or crystal) and placed on the machine. After a few minutes, it will show on the screen what drug or other ingredient it is a closest match with. It will also give a confidence rating for how close the match is to the database. If the match confidence is low, they will run another test to see if it is a mixture of different ingredients. This test doesn’t measure purity of the drug or strength, but it can tell you with some confidence what the drug most likely contains.

  • The results will be discussed, and you will also be asked a few questions at the end, such as whether or not you still plan on taking the drug and how. Your answers are confidential but important to help record information about the impact of the service. You will be offered some information materials on the drug(s) that were found. You can choose to destroy the drug in bleach while you are in the room if you decide you don’t want it.

  • Part of the drug checking service is discussing the substance that you have and how to make sure that, if you use it, you are doing so in a way that is less risky. This may include talking about how much of the drug to take and what to avoid mixing it with. Drug checking gives people important information about how to use drugs in a way that reduces risk of overdose or unpleasant effects.
  • Sometimes, the team might ask whether they can test the substance further, especially if it is something that the spectrometer cannot pick up on, if it is a drug that is new to the country or if it is very dangerous. You do not have to give them the drug if you don’t want to.

Drug checking at festivals

What if you can’t get to drug checking or use reagents?

As there is only one drug checking service in New Zealand right now, drug checking at events and clinics is limited, especially as there are only a few spectrometers and everyone is an unpaid volunteer. If you can’t access this service or reagent testing, think about whether you want to risk taking the drug, especially as the current market has lots of drugs that aren’t what people think they are. If you do decide to use, try doing these things:

  • Talk to your friends who have used the same drug from the same place to hear about the kind of effects they experienced. They may be able to offer advice on whether or not to take it.
  • Start with a small amount and wait an hour to see how you feel before you take more (re-dose). This way, if things don’t feel right, you haven’t taken too much.
  • Avoid mixing with alcohol or other drugs, especially if you aren’t 100% sure what you are taking, as all drugs interact with each other differently.
  • Make sure you and your friends know what to do if an emergency or overdose happens and that they know the signs of when things are going wrong. If you are at an event, scout out chill spaces and emergency services before you use.
  • Follow KnowYourStuffNZ, High Alert and NZ Drug Foundation for updates on what is out there right now in New Zealand. This can help you to decide whether you want to take the risk using an unknown drug. These organisations will post information about whether there is a certain pill or drug that is dangerous.
  • If you have taken something that has given you unexpected or unusual effects, you can report this to High Alert. This is confidential, and you won’t be in trouble with the law for reporting. This can help them figure out what dangerous drugs are out there and give important information to people who use drugs about how to be safer.