This has led to a flurry of calls for governments to introduce pill testing by specialists at festivals. What many people might not know is they can already legally purchase reagent test kits to test their drugs at home (although possession of the drugs is still illegal). So, do at-home test kits work?
What are reagents?
Reagents are chemicals that react with a small sample of the drug being tested by changing colour. The most well known reagents are marquis, mandelin and mecke. The colour change indicates what might be in the drug (which you can check on a chart that comes with the kit).
However many of these products are not well labelled. For example, the ketamine reagent kit is actually mandelin, which is quite good for testing ecstasy, but not as good for testing ketamine. The actual reagent chemicals can be purchased for testing multiple samples. This is also legal, and much cheaper.
In 2017 I was volunteering at a large multi-day Victorian festival, camping with academic colleagues. Having brought reagent testing equipment, when people came to our camp site asking if we’d like to buy drugs, we said “perhaps, but would you mind us testing it first?” Within 24 hours we had identified the dangerous drug PMA.
We contacted the festival emergency controller. Being an ex-law enforcement official, he knew instructing people to test other people’s drugs would be illegal since the drug testers would momentarily be in possession of an illegal drug. Nonetheless, he didn’t want deaths on his hands and so instructed us to set up a covert pill testing station.
Several concerned members of the community volunteered to handle the illegal drugs brought to the covert pill testing station, all knowing full well they would be breaking the law. Within 48 hours 139 samples had been tested. We suspected a number contained Nbome, an adulterant found in ecstasy capsules that killed several people in Melbourne only weeks earlier.
Most people whose drugs were tested that we suspected were from this batch simply put these drugs in the bin. A volunteer sent one such discarded sample to a testing service overseas that confirmed what we suspected.
The limitations of reagents
Reagent testing is rudimentary at best, but it can identify potentiality fatal adulterants in ecstasy such as PMA and Nbome. However, just because a test shows that a sample contains MDMA, the chemical name for ecstasy, the sample could also contain other dangerous chemicals. This is further complicated given nearly 500 new drugs have been identified in the past few years.
Accuracy can be improved by using at least two reagents and triangulating the data. That is, each reagent turns a different colour depending on the drug it is exposed to, so if you do it twice with two different reagents you’ll get a better idea of what the drug contains.
The covert operation in 2017 involved at least three reagents. Nonetheless, we could only speculate the drugs were from the same batch as those that killed several people in Melbourne weeks earlier because the colour pattern we were seeing didn’t show up on the chart.
Authors: Stephen Bright, Senior Lecturer of Addiction, Edith Cowan University