Buyer beware – what are users really getting when they buy drugs on the street?

Buyer beware – what are users really getting when they buy drugs on the street?

As a leading provider of drug testing services for members of the public, the legal sector, and the workplace sector, we are used to receiving questions from sample donors regarding their drug test results.

This is especially true when an ‘unexpected’ substance is found to be present in their sample.

But how does this happen? And can recreational drug users ever really know what they are buying when they choose to purchase illicit substances from street dealers?

In this blog, we discuss how the nature of the drug trade can make it possible for users to unwittingly consume substances they did not realise they were taking; and how drug testing can be used to identify which substances are present in a sample.

Are street drugs ever ‘pure’?

The simple answer to this question is no – it is highly unlikely that any drugs purchased at street level could be classed as ‘pure’.

Unsurprisingly, the fact that street drugs are sold illegally means that there is rarely any quality control involved in the manufacturing process!

This means that whether the user is purchasing a powder, pill, herb, or liquid, they can never really be sure of what they are getting, the strength of the dose, or whether other substances have been used to bulk out the drug.

Unscrupulous manufacturers and dealers will add any number of substances into the mix when selling to unsuspecting users.

How does drug testing work?

When a person consumes drugs, the parent drug and a proportion of its metabolites are released into the bloodstream, before being excreted from the body in a variety of ways.

Depending on the type of sample being tested (hair, nails, urine or oral fluid), it is possible to tell what a person has consumed in the past couple of days (urine or oral fluid), or during a period of up to 12 months prior to the samples being collected (hair and nails).

Although the laboratory may be instructed to test for the presence of a specific substance, testing can often reveal the presence of other substances that may not have been disclosed by the sample donor at the time samples were collected.

This is because, as mentioned above, street drugs are often ‘cut’ with a variety of substances to create or enhance the desired effect of the ‘high’. This can often occur without the knowledge of the person purchasing and consuming the drugs.

What does this mean for recreational drug users?

While taking any drug that has not been prescribed to you can be very dangerous, this is even more true when you consider that most illicit substances sold at street level will contain other substances that the user is completely unaware of.

According to DrugWise, which provides evidence-based information on drugs, alcohol and tobacco, illegal street drugs can be cut with other drugs, but can also contain naturally occurring impurities from the manufacturing process.

Examples of impurities include opiate alkaloids in heroin, which may be present due to the process of refining opium into heroin.

Adulterants – drugs which are designed to mimic or enhance the effects of the drug that is purportedly being offered – may also be present, and could include caffeine or ephedrine, which are often found in amphetamine or ecstasy.

Furthermore, diluents might be used to ‘bulk out’ the product. Examples of diluents include sugars like glucose and lactose.

As a provider of industry-leading drug testing services, we have seen several instances where drug users claim to have unwittingly consumed substances they had not planned to take.

One such example was a sample donor who we will refer to as Mr X, who disputed his drug test results.

Five substances were found to be present in the hair sample of Mr X; THC, cocaine, norcocaine, benzoylecgonine and ketamine.

While he did not dispute the other test results, Mr X was adamant that he had not previously taken ketamine and could not fathom why ketamine might have shown up in his test results following analysis of the hair samples: “I haven’t even seen ketamine, know anyone who uses it, or even how to use it, wouldn’t be able to get it if I tried, I don’t have a horse and I’m not a vet!”

Mr X seemed unable to accept that an illicit drug he had purchased could contain another illicit substance within it.

Drug testing you can trust

AlphaBiolabs provides drug testing for members of the public, the legal sector, and the workplace sector.

Our state-of-the-art, UKAS-accredited laboratory can test a wide range of biological samples for the presence of drugs and their metabolites including urine, oral fluid, hair and nails.

Before undergoing a drug test for legal or other official matters, sample donors will always be asked to disclose details of any medication or other substances they may have taken during the testing timeframe.

It is extremely important that the sample donor provides as much information as possible, including the dose and frequency of use.

For legal instructions, our Drug Screen Plus service will screen for standard panel drugs that have not been specifically requested or suspected, free of charge. Confirmatory and reporting fees will only be charged if additional substances are detected.

For more information on our drug testing services, call 0333 600 1300 or email

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