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As overdose deaths continue to rise, drug users are being warned that they can’t be sure of the strength or content of what they buy. According to findings from the UK’s first community-based drug-checking service, almost a quarter of street drugs are not what users think they are. Some are far more powerful and dangerous than expected.

The testing, carried out in Bristol and Durham by the harm reduction charity The Loop, involved more than 170 substances of concern being submitted and analysed by a team of chemists in a pop-up lab. Follow-up healthcare consultations were then delivered to more than 200 users. The Loop was also able to warn users about problem drugs in circulation via social media.

Nearly one in four of the drugs sold (24%) were not what they purported to be, according to the results published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. Drugs said to be MDMA or ecstasy turned out to be n-ethylpentylone, which has been linked to overdose deaths. A substance claimed to be ketamine was found to be a new psychoactive substance with the chemical name 2-FDCK, which is about one-and-a-half times more powerful than ketamine, with effects that last for up to three times as long.

“The core problem is supply and demand”, said Professor Fiona Measham, Chair in Criminology at the University of Liverpool, and Director of The Loop.

“As demand for drugs is as buoyant as ever, we see increasingly innovative attempts to meet that demand, with drug users vulnerable to the sophisticated operations of organised crime. Testing bypasses the central problem here, which is that users cannot be sure what they’ve bought in terms of content or strength.”

“Identifying a ketamine analogue for the first time in a small city like Durham, with several of the dealers having mis-sold it as ketamine, illustrates both the extent to which new psychoactive substances are being mis-sold as established drugs on the streets of Britain and also how street dealers themselves can be vulnerable to mis-selling by suppliers higher up the chain,” Measham said.

Measham explained that some of the users had already tried the substance and knew something wasn’t quite right with it, but didn’t know what. The Loop was surprised when it turned out to be this new ketamine analogue.

“It makes me wonder what else is in circulation that could be causing harm to people all across the UK”, said Measham.

Value of drug testing

Drug-related deaths in Britain are at record levels, with the most recent official figures showing that 2917 deaths from illicit drugs were recorded in England and Wales in 2018, a rise of 17%.

“One of the distinct values of drug-safety testing is that we ask people what they think they have bought then test it and find out what they have actually bought”, Measham said. “In this way we are gradually building a much better understanding of how illegal drug markets operate in the UK, including the extent of mis-selling and adulteration in markets.

Research undertaken by The Loop proves that festival dealers are twice as likely to mis-sell substances as neighbourhood dealers. The latest community-based testing, like these pilots in Bristol and Durham, shines a light on the level of mis-selling within different city centre drug markets. This can then alert drug users and emergency services in the short term and also inform healthcare services in the long term.

After receiving the results of the drug testing and speaking to a healthcare professional, three in 10 drug users intend to take smaller doses in the future; a third will be more careful about polydrug use; and one in 10 will dispose of further substances in their possession.

Steve Rolles, of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said: “As drug-related deaths reach new records, it’s clear that putting our heads in the sand and wishing the problem would go away isn’t good enough. We know that drug-safety testing works. It’s time the government showed some long-absent leadership and got fully behind it.”

AlphaBiolabs’ standard drugs panel tests for 14 drugs of abuse, including ketamine, ecstasy and cocaine. For information on any of AlphaBiolabs’ drug testing solutions, please call 0333 600 1300 or email us at info@alphabiolabs.com