The Promise and Pitfalls of Consumer Drug Detectors. Okay, Mostly Pitfalls. (Part 2 of 2)

What’s in Your Drugs? Summer Drug Testing Roundup, part 2 of 2:

Read Part 1 here

On the heels of a bar drugging scare this past summer in Seattle, some local bars in the Capitol Hill section of that city are supplying test strips for bar patrons. These easy-to-use reagent strips can typically test for GHB, and in some cases Ketamine. The problems, though, with such devices are legion. Where to begin? I’ll get there in a roundabout way by first talking about the state of easily deployed drug identification technology.

Given the recent attention to contamination and tampering of both street and prescribed drugs, along with the drug counterfeiting problem, there’s clearly a general demand for light, reasonably precise, and portable field and home test technology for consumers to use. For reasons of legal sanction, privacy, expense, and convenience, commercial lab testing on-demand still leaves behind a big unmet need.

After-ingestion drug kits already exist – worried parents can get their kid to pee in a cup and test for any number of illicit substances, which they can then mail into a lab for confirmation. But the unmet need – or perceived need – is for before-you-consume products.  For instance, while the press loves entrepreneurs who come up with yet another “revolutionary” spiked drink detector (test cards, straws, cups, coasters, even a nail polish that you can stick in your drink) – funders … not so much. Though things may change, press fanfare is usually followed by failure on the venture capital and the crowdsourced funding circuit.

People seem to feel ambivalent, at best, about using these items anyway. I’d love to think this had something to do with clarity about the real nature of a variety of inter-related problems – drug use, alcohol use, and sexual assault – but I suspect there’s more to it.

In studying the date rape drugs scare, I noticed that the uptake for these detection items is low.  Campus public safety departments and bars, for a while in the 2000s, bought bulk lots to hand out only to find enthusiasm for the products’ use to be weak. The industry also lacks success testimonials – the natural one being “I foiled a spiker!” – for two reasons: one, the testing products aren’t used much, and two: because spiking in public venues, among strangers, is much lower than the hype would suggest. Once a particular scare dies down, demand from the nightlife industry tends to wane, suggesting that patrons aren’t particularly clamoring for even more reactive coasters or drink sealers.

There’s also a third problem: many of these reagent testing devices manage to lack both specificity and sensitivity – enough so that both false positives and false negatives are fairly common in lab settings. The test cards and strips for GHB, for instance, are based on a simple Ph test. Pour some mineral water on it – or any number of other liquids that are common in drinks and in bars – and you can get a positive result. (Fun bonus error: some wines have GHB in them.) Yet, as a 2010 article in Maclean’s suggests, in addition to missing about a third of tampered samples (that is, producing false negatives), the most widely distributed products “would still finger 12 innocents as toxic creeps for every 1 guilty man it identified.” A great deal of mayhem could ensue in the wake of a false positive before the 12 inculpated spikers (at a sensitivity level of 88%, according to the UK lab study by Caryl Beynon and associates of some similar spike-detecting products) could be cleared of wrongdoing. (Here are some other studies that examine the problems with this technology.)

Newly deployed handheld mass spectrometers are much more precise, but they still aren’t the kind of thing that a layperson interested in their personal safety will be able to use and understand well. Technicians and scientists have to be trained to interpret (and not over-interpret) results; the rest of us might well end up in the same guessing-game position both before and after the field test.

Yet, to be fair, while the date rape drug detection industry lacks testimonials of success, false positive scandals seem to be lacking as well.  I haven’t read of any calamities associated with the big error rates of these products. The Maclean’s article came out after a spate of new products hit the market, but the lackluster interest and scientific problems with the devices were reported on in the press as early as 2002, in an article by Margie Mason via the Associated Press. This is another indirect – though fairly convincing — indication that such devices, which are still employing the same technology, are celebrated without being actually used much. They’re neither foiling drink spikers nor falsely implicating our bar mates. In all likelihood, they get ordered, deployed near the lemons and swizzle sticks, and then get mothballed.

Next up in this blog: a third entry in the Summer Drug Testing Roundup. More pitfalls of light and portable drug testing, but I promise a bit more promise also.

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