How do you know that what’s in a wine bottle is actually wine? Well, unless you bought it in a
used plastic bottle from a guy at an abandoned construction site who wouldn’t tell you his
name, you know it’s wine because it’s labelled, and there are laws in place about proper
labelling. So you can feel confident that when you buy wine, or beer, or 12-year Glenfiddich,
you know what’s in it and how strong it is, regardless of what the hipster liquor store employee might tell you.
Illegal drugs don’t work that way. There’s nobody regulating what is inside a molly capsule, or
what percentage of a bag of coke is actually cocaine. You may trust the person you get your
drugs from, and they may be a “really nice guy”, but they might not know what’s actually in the
bag either. The drug market is extremely unpredictable right now. Cheap, untested research
chemicals which produce similar highs are frequently sold as “traditional” drugs like ketamine
and LSD, and potentially dangerous cuts may be responsible for more “ecstasy” deaths
than the drug MDMA itself.
There are two main concerns when buying drugs in powder or crystal form, and not a ton of
1) Is this actually the drug this dealer say it is?
2) Is there anything else in it as well? Can whatever else is in it hurt me?
Drug prohibition leaves drug manufacture and distribution in the hands of criminal
organizations with zero accountability. Until prohibition ends (and it will, but not soon enough
to solve this current problem), the best method for answering these questions is by testing
your drugs. While testing your drugs in a lab like EcstacyData.org can be costly, reagent drug
testing kits are a cheap tried tested and true alternative that can help you figure out if you’re
getting the drug you’re paying for. It should be noted that they are NOT a guarantee that your
drugs are safe, but they’re way more reliable than any dealer reassurances, especially when
To use a reagent test kit, you take a teeny, tiny sample in a vial or on a plate, pour one drop of
reagent onto it, and compare the colour that it turns to a chart. Check out these Marquis tests
of four bags of what was supposed to be MDMA:
As you can see, none of them are MDMA. All four are actually methylone, and two have
amphetamines mixed in. This is a common result for people buying drugs at festivals–
methylone is much cheaper than MDMA to produce. Try this fun game the next time a
stranger offers you drugs at a party or festival: Ask them “can I test it?” and see how quickly
they make excuses and leave. It’s both entertaining and terrifying.
It’s important to remember that even test kits are not foolproof. Reagents can only tell you if a
particular drug is in a sample at all; most of them don’t tell you how much of that drug is in it.
The colour reaction produced by a small amount of MDMA can overtake whatever else is in
the sample and make you think that it’s pure. One way to get around this is to ask if you can
test a sample of whatever you’re buying, after your seller has already shown you the bag. Test
a sample from what’s already in the bag you’re about to buy, without giving them advance
warning. If they say no, find a new dealer.
Right now, these are what kits can help you with, and which to choose:
MDMA: Marquis, Mandelin and Simon reagents test for presence of the drug. MDMA Purity
Cocaine: All reagent tests for potentially dangerous cuts, but will react only to cuts, not
cocaine itself. Cocaine Purity Kit tests for purity.
Ketamine: Mandelin reagent tests for presence of ketamine.
LSD: Ehrlich reagent tests for presence of LSD.
Opiates: Mecke, Marquis and Mandelin reagent tests for presence of specific opiates (heroin,
morphine, oxycodone, etc).
Amphetamines: Mandelin and Marquis reagents test for presence of amphetamines.
Below are the main tests. Using two or three of them with the same substance will give you
the best results, but any single one is better than nothing.
Despite how helpful they are, integrating test kits into the resources that harm reduction
organizations and concerned event organizers are able to provide has proved difficult. When
Evolve Festival in Nova Scotia announced that they would be providing free drug testing to
festival attendees, they were applauded by harm reduction activists, who hoped that this
would set a good example for other festivals—until their insurance underwriter dropped them
just two days before the festival was supposed to start. They quickly found another, but had to
scrap their plans to provide testing. The irony is, providing drug testing will only lessen the
potential dangers to people. In the end, the main concern with drug use is people getting hurt.
While harm reduction methods such as using test kits have never been shown to encourage
drug use, they have been proven to make drug use safer—and nothing has ever worked to
keep all drugs out of festivals. (Note that we say safer, not safe—unlike what this misinformed
doctor seems to think.)
In sum, getting drugs from someone you trust is much better than getting it from a stranger,
but still not as good as actually testing it. Stay aware, educate your friends and party safely.
Test kits cost about $25 plus tax, and you can buy one from this online retailer
, or arrange with the Trip! Project to pick one up in Toronto.
Hilary Agro is a graduate student in Medical Anthropology studying drug use and harm reduction at raves and festivals in Ontario.