Scientists, public health experts and volunteers working with them have started to show up at music festivals, concerts, raves and other public gatherings where illicit drugs are frequently used. Equipped with special chemical testing kits, they help attendees test pills and powder for purity in real time so that people can make better-informed decisions about whether to take them.
The practice — more common in Europe than in the United States — is controversial, and the debate has been similar to the early days of needle-exchange programs in the 1980s. Proponents argue harm reduction. They say people are more likely to reject taking drugs to get high if the substances do not contain what they think they do, which reduces the risk of overdose and other harmful effects. Critics say such programs implicitly encourage the use of illegal drugs.
There hasn't been a lot of hard data about pill testing until this month, when a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found some surprising things about one of the most popular street drugs being used today.
Called Molly, the drug is a form of ecstasy or MDMA and sought after for its ability to create euphoria and heightened sensations in users. It typically sells for $10 to $20 a dose. As of 2014, a government survey estimated, 7 percent of the U.S. population had tried ecstasy at least once. Molly's appeal is that it's supposed to be purer and safer.
So why then has there been an increase in hospital emergency room visits and deaths related to the drugs due to Molly?
Researchers looked at data collected by volunteers for the nonprofit organization DanceSafe, who tested samples of pills or powder at gatherings throughout the United States between July 2010 and July 2015. The testers would scrape a small amount of a pill or use part of the inside of a capsule.
The first thing the volunteers found was that MDMA was present in only 60 percent of the 529 ostensible Molly samples collected. The others contained a mix of all sorts of other ingredients. Most of the chemicals couldn't be identified through the tests at the sites. But 13 samples contained methamphetamine, a strong nervous system drug. And three samples even had a very potent form of amphetamine known as PMA, which is more likely than many other drugs to kill with one dose.
The researchers concluded that Molly is no safer than ecstasy.
The study also contained some important findings from a public policy perspective. After attendees at these events got the test results for their pills or powder, they were asked whether they still intended to ingest them. With individuals whose drugs did contain MDMA, 46 percent said they would go ahead and use them. That compared with 26 percent of people who said they still intended to take their drugs although they did not contain MDMA.
Such testing programs are catching on in more countries. For the first time in Britain, the more than 200,000 attendees at last year's outdoor music festival Kendal Calling had access to a tent where their pills could be tested, according to NPR. And Australia may conduct a trial at the Spilt Milk festival in November.
The “government wants to carefully go through all the details of the arrangements before allowing pill testing to take place,” Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, and his colleagues wrote in an opinion piece in the Guardian. “Most public health advocates will welcome this decision, although inevitably some will argue that seven months of preparation is unnecessary. We are relieved that, at last, pill testing is finally moving from debate to policy to practical on-the-ground interventions.”
Matthew W. Johnson, one of the authors of the recent U.S. testing study and an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, acknowledged in a statement that there is ongoing debate over the legality and value of pill-testing services but that they deserve a closer look.
“People would be safest not taking any street drugs at all, but if free, no-fault testing can reduce deaths and other catastrophic consequences, it may be a service worth having,” Johnson said.