UK’s first community-based drug testing reveals quarter of illegal substances are missold

Samuel Lovett

The UK’s first ever community-based drug testing service has shown that almost a quarter of illegal substances sold on the streets are not what users think they are.

Chemists at harm reduction charity The Loop tested more than 170 “substances of concern” which were submitted by a combination of students, rough sleepers and other members of the public to pop-up labs in Bristol and Durham.

The findings, published this week in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, found that 24 per cent of the tested drugs returned unexpected results and, in some cases, were more potent in strength than initially believed.

A wide range of expected and unexpected psychedelics were identified, including LSD, n-ethylpentylone – missold as MDMA – and a new psychoactive substance, named 2-FDCK, which is about one-and-a-half times more powerful than ketamine.

MDMA was the most sampled drug, at 43.3 per cent, followed by cocaine (12.9 per cent) and ketamine (12.9 per cent).

A small number of submitted samples were associated with “problem drug use”, including heroin containing paracetemol and caffeine.

In those cases where the strength and purity of the drug was revealed to be as expected, nearly half of users said they intended to take the same dose of the submitted substance. Where a higher strength and greater level of risk was revealed, three in 10 said they intended to take smaller doses in the future.

One in 14 said they would dispose of further substances in their possession following the testing, while a third said that they intended to be more careful in the future about mixing the drug with others.

The study, led by Professor Fiona Measham, chair in criminology at the University of Liverpool, aimed to “explore the feasibility of expanding drug safety testing from festivals to community-based service provision in the UK”.

“We would like to see community-based drug safety testing rolled out in towns and cities across the UK to help address our record high drug-related death rates,” Professor Measham told The Independent.

“We are slowly moving forwards, building up the evidence base with four years of successful drug safety testing in festivals and now in city centres under our belt, partnering with the public sector, and most recently a Commons Select Committee recommended ‘the introduction of on-site drug checking services at festivals & in night time economies’.”

Professor Measham pointed to the model deployed by authorities in the Netherlands, where free-to-use drug-testing services are provided across the country.

“The Dutch government provides one million euros of funding each year to the Dutch Drugs Information Monitoring System with about 30 different testing centres in towns and cities across the country,” she said. “We could learn a lot from the Dutch model.”

Compared to festival and nightclub drug checks, community-based services hold the potential to “reach much broader drug using communities” and “therefore could be more far reaching and more impactful,” Professor Measham added.

“We had a couple of groups from rough sleeping communities drop off heroin samples for testing and we could provide test results and harm reduction advice targeted directly to them.

“Also if we test in communities ahead of leisure events rather than onsite at the event itself we have more time to identify substances of concern and put out alerts if necessary.”

However, given the lengthy negotiations involved in authorising and staging such services – discussions are typically held with a variety of bodies, including the police, public health officials, universities and licensing departments – Professor Measham admitted that drug testing in the community “remains politically and operationally challenging”.

The Loop’s testing took place on five separate dates over the course of 2018 and was held at a number of locations within Bristol and Durham, including a church.

Follow-up healthcare consultations and harm reduction advice was delivered to more than 200 users in the wake of the tests.

Drug safety testing, which originated in California in the 1960s, was first introduced in the UK in 2016 and, prior to The Loop’s initiative, had been used exclusively at music festivals.

The UK’s first pilot in 2016 found that over three quarters of service users whose sample was identified as other than expected intended not to take the substance, with 85.7 per cent of these handing over further substances to the testing service for onwards police destruction.

The Loop’s findings come at a time of record-level highs for drug-related deaths in Britain. A total of 2,917 deaths from illicit drugs were recorded in England and Wales in 2018.

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