30 Sep 2013

Nightclub drug tests: saving lives or quality control?

In Austria and some other European countries, testing services tell clubbers whether their drugs are cut with other substances. But are such checks any more than quality control for the drugs market?

We’re in a nightclub in Vienna. The music is loud, the drinks are flowing, but there’s something different going on, writes Cordelia Lynch.

Next to the dancefloor a queue is forming. As we walk to the top of the stairs, we see a blue curtain and, behind it, a team of trained counsellors talking to clubbers in measured tones. There is a small weighing machine on the table.

It’s 10 o’clock and the CheckIt! team have already spoken to about 50 people. They are calm, reassuring and they’re counselling a steady stream of young people. They’re also taking samples of people’s drugs to send them for testing.

Saving lives?

They take a very small shaving of each one. What they’re doing is funded by the city of Vienna and they’ve been doing it for more than a decade. The idea is that by testing the purity of drugs, they can influence people’s decision-making. They believe they’ve saved many lives, but they have no statistics to prove it. Getting funding for research has been difficult.

In many countries drugs like cocaine and amphetamines are increasingly being cut with other substances.

Drug checking services already exist in Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. In many countries, including the UK, drugs like cocaine and amphetamines are increasingly being cut with other substances, such as caffeine, phenacetine, levamisole and local anaesthetics.

The Trans European Drug Information Project assesses the changing trends in recreational drug use. Drug purity varies significantly from country to country. In Belgium, 55 per cent of what users thought was crystal MDMA actually contained no MDMA whatsoever. In Austria, this happened in only 6 per cent of cases. Out of 709 samples of cocaine, 85 per cent were cut with other substances.

Read more: Q&A - what is MDMA?
Drugs testing ecstasy cocaine MDMA nightclubs Austria

Drugs database

Back at the club, the samples are put into a box and taken to a mobile laboratory off-site at the University of Vienna. Toxicologist Professor Rainer Schmid and his team are working through the night to establish what the drugs are, so the information can be fed back.

Their mobile laboratory is filled with equipment that can assess what chemical compounds are in the substances and compare them against a database of pre-tested drugs already known to be on the market. Tonight, they’ve identified a lot of levamisole, an anti-worming agent for pets. On previous occasions, they’ve seen PMA, a toxic substance that was linked to 20 deaths in the UK in 2012.

Pharmacist Anton Luf told me: “The danger associated with levamisole is that we don’t have any data about it, there’s no data about it… so we don’t know what effect it has.”

Warning signs

An hour later, another queue has formed – this time at the results board in the venue. It’s based on a traffic light system, but there’s no green here. They don’t want to endorse drug use or suggest any of these substances are safe, but they do believe they can make people think more carefully about the risk they are taking.

There are some warning signs issued, a handful of red notices that highlight there are unknown and potentially very dangerous chemicals inside. This process can identify bad batches of drugs.

It’s good that you know what you are going to take. It’s just a public service for you. Vienna clubber

One man told me: “Few people taking drugs want to kill themselves. Most just want to have a good time.”

But others seem more pragmatic. I asked one clubber if he thought people in Vienna were safer as a result of the testing. He responded with a wry smile: “No, I don’t think so! But it’s good that you know what you are going to take. It’s just a public service for you.”

Back at the laboratory I questioned whether this simply condoned drug use. Professor Rainer Schmid said: “No, definitely not. You go to the people and accept that they want to take the drugs and we can just influence their decisions.”

Reducing risk

In the UK, John Ramsay also tests drugs, but he does it for law enforcement. He doesn’t think there is enough evidence to support a similar system to Austria. He told me: “We don’t want to act as the quality control for the illegal drug market.”

The government will want compelling evidence that drug testing reduces risk.

But former government drugs adviser, Professor David Nutt, who was forced to resign after saying cannabis was less dangerous than alcohol, believes drug testing is essential. He recalls the recent spate of deaths linked to PMA, which is being sold as ecstasy but is considered more toxic.

“They thought they were taking MDMA ecstasy. If they knew they were taking PMA, almost certainly none of them would have taken it and those lives would have been saved.”

But that argument will not be enough to influence Britain’s policies. The government will want compelling evidence that drug testing reduces risk and even then, there would have to be a major cultural shift and an acceptance that drugs are part of our way of life and that we have a responsibility to make their experience as safe as possible.

Home Office response

Channel 4 News contacted the Home Office for a response to Cordelia Lynch’s report. A spokesperson gave this reply: “Drugs are illegal because they are dangerous – they destroy lives and blight communities.

“Drug usage remains at its lowest level since records began with statistics published earlier this year showing that the number of heroin and crack cocaine users in England has fallen below 300,000 for the first time.

“The UK’s approach on drugs remains clear, we must help individuals who are dependent by treatment, while ensuring law enforcement protects society by stopping the supply and tackling the organised crime that is associated with the drugs trade.”