by Dr Jez Weston
Drug policy is slowly starting to move from ineffective moralising to the adoption of effective and evidence-based approaches.
KnowYourStuffNZ provides drug-related harm reduction at events and music festivals, which in practice means a constant stream of people coming to our tent to get their drugs checked.
The need is clear. This summer, for instance, we’ve noticed a particularly strong batch of MDMA (ecstasy) pills circulating at events we are testing at. Worryingly, we have also discovered that one-third of people’s drugs are not what they think they are. More positively, around half the people who discover their drugs are not as expected decide not to take those drugs.
Part 1 – Pill testing – how it works
New Zealand is small and far away from the rest of the world. That affects every facet of our economy and the underground economy is no different – the drugs people use here have some differences from overseas.
Festival drugs in New Zealand are primarily expected to be MDMA (ecstasy) and LSD, a narrower selection than at festivals in Europe. We also see more drugs that are not what they are supposed to be. In the UK around one-fifth are not as expected; in New Zealand it is as many as one third.
For on-site substance identification we use chemical reagents and infrared spectroscopy.
Reagent spot tests work very well for an initial screen. We drop a reagent onto the client’s sample that changes colour depending on what substances are present. Typically for MDMA, we start with the Marquis reagent (a mix of formaldehyde and sulfuric acid) which rapidly produces a strong purple-black with MDMA. A second check with the Mandelin reagent (sulfuric acid and ammonium metavanadate) should produce a similar black result.
The most common surprise for people this season and last year has been pills and powders that have been sold to them as MDMA but instead contain cathinones, known as “bath salts” in the media. These are synthetically produced chemicals designed to replicate the effects of the naturally occurring stimulant found in the plant Khat. Those effects can include feelings of euphoria and empathy and heightened alertness.
Cathinones we have seen already this summer include methylone, n-ethylpentylone, n-ethylbuphedrone, 4-methylethcathinone, and methcathinone.
With reagent testing these can be easy to spot – Marquis will turn yellow or orange. However, reagents have a hard time determining which cathinone is present and can’t tell the difference between a sample of mostly MDMA versus a sample that is 10% MDMA and 90% cathinones as the strong black colour from MDMA hides any other colour.
This is where spectroscopy comes in. We have the use of a Fourier transform infrared spectrometer that is designed specifically for testing these substances, and allows us to detect up to five different ingredients in a sample. It’s also compact and rugged enough to work in a hot tent, and can be powered from a solar panel.
Traditional spectroscopy fires infrared light through a sample for one chance at absorption. Our machine uses a total internal reflection approach where infrared light bounces around inside a diamond. The powdered test sample is pressed against the diamond and where it touches, the light creates an evanescent wave in the sample. This multiple reflection allows many chances for absorption, giving a much higher signal to noise ratio than traditional approaches.
Software compares the measured spectrum from the spectrometer against a database of reference spectra to determine what substances are detected. This analysis can’t give a quantitative measure of purity, but we can tell people what psychoactive substances are present and whether there are also fillers and impurities.
While the spectrometer answers lots of our questions, reagents also have a particular role in detecting LSD. This is generally supplied on paper blotters and active at such tiny concentrations (around 100 micrograms) that the spectrometer will detect only the paper. However, very few substances have a psychoactive effect at the tiny quantities that a blotter will hold so blotters are most likely to contain only either LSD or NBOMe.
Dangerous and unpredictable
The NBOMe family (“n-bombs” in the media) are dangerous and unpredictable. They have killed people overseas, so we’re keen to tell our clients if this is what they have. For discriminating between these two possibilities, we use Ehrlich’s reagent (p-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde). This turns purple with LSD and doesn’t produce a colour with NBOMe, providing a very clear discrimination.
With the two techniques, we identified 97% of the samples that people brought us last summer.
What we can’t yet do is determine purity or dosage, or detect potentially dangerous substances that may be present at very low concentrations. However, testing technologies keep getting better. Several techniques are being explored for this kind of testing, including portable mass spectrometry, Raman spectroscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance, and ion mobility spectroscopy, so I hope it won’t be too many years before we can tell people everything they need to know to make a fully informed decision about the substances they have.
In the next article, I’ll discuss how this information changes people’s behaviour and why it leads them to make safer choices.
Dr Jez Weston has a background in materials science, science policy, and the role of evidence in guiding decisions. He used to be a lab scientist, so enjoys the opportunity to go to festivals and do some real bench science, with the goal of keeping people safe and informing drug policy. He provides logistic, operational and strategic assistance to KnowYourStuffNZ.