The Denver-based national organization DanceSafe is already well-versed in telling unknowing music festival-goers that the ecstasy they were planning on taking that night isn’t actually what they think it is.
For years, volunteers have been using colorimetric reagent testing to identify the chemical makeup of drugs that users are planning to take at raves, clubs, parties and festivals. But the rising presence of illicit experimental synthetic drugs has created a situation in which party drugs could be laced with or composed of anything from fentanyl to an unidentified compound with unpredictable side effects. Figuring out what's in something that's sold as LSD, molly, cocaine or any number of substances is getting tougher.
DanceSafe wants to be able to do drug testing more precisely. It's now raising funds to buy two FTIR spectrometers by the end of this year, making it the first group in the U.S. to use the technology for on-site analysis.
As an organization with a harm-reduction philosophy, DanceSafe’s goal is not to stop people from using drugs, but to make drug use that's already happening safer by informing users about the product they're taking.
"Most people have never interacted with an unregulated marketplace," explains Mitchell Gomez, DanceSafe's executive director. "When you buy 2 percent milk, you know that it’s 2 percent milk. So educating people about the realities of these markets is a big thing that you do. Everybody trusts their source, but we're educating people that it’s not your source, it’s five people up the chain, who is generally somebody you would not hang out with."
Many drugs that are commonly sold on the black market in the U.S. are mislabeled or cut with other substances that are potentially much more dangerous than the user and even their direct dealer knows. MDMA (commonly known as molly or ecstasy), for example, is a chemical that acts similarly to stimulants and hallucinogens. At most normal doses, it produces a euphoric sensation and a heightened sense of empathy. However, the chemicals PMA and PMMA are also frequently sold as molly or ecstasy. Those chemicals are more potent at lower doses, making them more likely to cause convulsions, shortened breathing, a hospital visit or even death.
Gomez says that drug testing often effectively deters someone from using when testing shows that a sample contains an unidentified chemical. Volunteers don’t give explicit advice or instructions about what the user should do, but, Gomez says, “the most common question is [the user] asking where they can get rid of it.”
The colorimetric reagent (also called "color/strip") testing that DanceSafe currently uses, however, is considered a “presumptive" method. It can only identify whether a substance “definitely isn’t” or “probably is” a certain substance. It doesn’t show the user the full chemical makeup of the drug, and there’s a chance it may come up with a false positive.
FTIR (fourier-transform infared spectroscopy) uses laser-beam technology to provide positive identification. It’s considered a more exact test, and it tells the user what’s in the drug, not just what isn’t.
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It will also allow DanceSafe to collect better data on what substances are hitting the U.S. marketplace disguised as other things. Gomez hopes it will help the organization be able to stay ahead and warn of trends that suddenly start killing people. When they find an unknown chemical that doesn't match anything in their databases, the user will be able to legally send it to a GCIS lab on DanceSafe's dime, where chemists can analyze it and then contribute that information to drug databases likes DrugsData.org, which tracks the chemical composition of illicit drugs.
Getting advanced drug-testing technology into as many hands as possible may be the best possible equivalent to nutritional facts for illicit substances, but Gomez says that the unregulated illicit market is bound to encourage the development and introduction of more potent and dangerous substances.
The synthetic opioid fentanyl, a large quantity of which was recently seized in Denver, is a good example. "The reason it’s showing up everywhere is not because it’s more desirable," Gomez says. "It’s just easier to smuggle; you get more doses per smuggled ounce. ... The reason fentanyl is killing people is because heroin’s illegal. That’s the base reality of this.
"People have this idea that drug consumers just don’t care about their health, but drug consumers are rational consumers," Gomez says. "Everyone wants to know what they’re taking."
Want to help DanceSafe check your drugs? Make a donation toward DanceSafe's purchase of an FTIR here.