Like Many Things, the Promise of Light and Portable Drug Testing Depends Entirely on Context

images-pills-modern-cover-photo-fbI noted in my last blog entry on the dubious technology “drink spiking detection” devices — such as coasters, test cards, and other reagent-coated bar ware — that both false positives and false negatives are too high to make the technology useful. I also suggested that if such user-end technology — thus far deployed without much real consumer interest — were to become more popular, the imprecision associated with such products could instill a dangerous reassurance to people situationally suspicious enough to test their drinks, while creating undue fear, accusations, and other kinds of serious ramifications in the case of false positives.

But in another realm, there’s already a darker side to false positives in quick field tests. Nationwide concern in the US is beginning to pick up about the sometimes life-altering problems associated with inaccurate or inconclusive field tests used by law enforcement agencies. Field testing technology for drugs on the scene (say, at a vehicle stop) hasn’t developed much since its inception in the 1970s; it appears that what is new is the recognition that cross-reactions with any number of other ordinary chemicals and compounds produce unacceptably high levels of false positives. The New York Times Magazine reported in July that widely deployed reagent field tests have routinely produced false positives for methamphetamine and cocaine. But enter “field drug test” or “drink detector” into a search engine on line, and you’ll find little recognition of the cross-reaction problems that have been known for years.

Furthermore, the necessary visual interpretation of chemical testing results (it turned blue, it turned sort of blue, it turned light blue…) remains a key moment in decision-making in forensic detection and is fraught with the tendency to over-certainty and over-confidence.  This problem has been well-known since the most rudimentary lab techniques were developed in the early 1900s, and remains a problem for cheap, easy field deployables. The cobalt thiocyanate tests used to test for cocaine, for instance, will also turn blue with a number of over-the-counter medicines and cleaning products.

Technically, in order for a positive field test to lead to criminal conviction, it has to be confirmed in a lab by more precise tests. But circumstances rule. Most people arrested for drugs don’t have access to private lawyers or even readily available bail or bond money, and pleas before confirmation are the norm.  Some period of incarceration may ensue anyway, just enough to disrupt the stability of more vulnerable citizens. The Times article chronicles the downfall of a Louisiana woman arrested in Houston and saddled with a felony conviction for crack cocaine, which turned out to be a fragment of the over-the-counter aspirin and caffeine pill that she insisted it was. Having lost her steady home and job as a result, she didn’t even realize that she’d been part of a wave of similar exonerations until the Times informed her, years later.

But on-site drug testing can be used by consumers of drugs, as well. In a different context, the technology, even with its flaws, can prevent harm rather than inflict it. There is a well-functioning model out there – and it comes from the rave scene. In rave and electronic music settings, there’s actually a solid network of nonprofit drug testing that can analyze drugs on the spot. The DanceSafe outfit is probably the best known of these harm reduction groups, but the technology to provide such a service is widespread. MDMA, commonly known as Molly or Ecstasy, is one of the more widely adulterated illicit drugs. On August 3, Lauren Frayer reported on NPR’s All Things Considered radio show that on-site testing had been arranged for a larger music festival in the UK. Due in great part to advocacy on the part of researcher Fiona Measham of Durham University, a legal path has been cleared for the process, to encourage event goers to subject their drugs to testing. In the process, they can discuss the results with a trained counselor. In the US, DanceSafe sells testing kits to consumers, but can’t provide on-site testing and counsel due to risk of attendees’ arrests. (This organization and others are advocating for legal and enforcement-practice reform that would enable this service in the US.)

Online drug commerce has advanced the prospect of user-initiated testing, as well. A firm called Energy Control in Barcelona tests any drug sent to it and provides a report. It now receives government support in the interest of harm reduction, although it started out with a single doctor, Fernando Caudevilla, who posted to the now-defunct Silk Road darknet platform, offering testing and advice. The testing is highly precise but not immediate – with at least a few days’ turnaround time. The company takes Bitcoin payments to enhance anonymity.

A number of drug cryptomarkets have emerged in the wake of Silk Road’s closure in 2013, when it was seized by the FBI as part of the indictment of its founder, Ross Ulbricht. The market for online illicit drug transactions is growing rapidly, according to a newly-released RAND report.

So you can assume that there is a latent demand for user-end testing products, for people that use drugs voluntarily, and have the resources to buy them discreetly. People who purchase drugs in hand-to-hand transactions aren’t the same as those who buy on line. It’s unclear whether this sort of simple re-agent technology would be used widely by those who purchase street drugs.  Energy Control reported that cocaine was much purer in online samples than street ones, suggesting that a bifurcated market remains — starkly by economic resources — and perhaps also the interest in drug content verification. In any case, having users make contact with neutral testers and advice-givers seems all to the good, in terms of enhancing public health and at the same time adding to the research body of knowledge about illicit drug trends. Increasing awareness of the fallibility of light-and-portable tests — and resisting the “gee whiz” style of reporting on technology — also seems useful to everyone.

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