Much ado about nothing: Overinterpreting volatility in homicide rates

Andrew Wheeler (a PhD criminologist teaching in Texas, and a former undergraduate student of mine) explains what you may or may not already know about homicide rates in the U.S.

Andrew Wheeler

I’m not much of a macro criminologist, but being asked questions by my dad (about Richard Rosenfeld and the Ferguson effect) and the dentist yesterday (asking about some of Trumps comments about rising crime trends) has prompted me to jump into it and give my opinion. Long story short — many sources I believe are overinterpreting short term fluctuations as more meaningful than they are.

First I will tackle national crime rates. So if you have happened to walk by a TV playing CNN the past few days, you may have heard Donald Trump being criticized for his statements on crime rates. This is partially a conflation with the difference between overall levels of crime versus changes in crime over time. Basically crime is currently low compared to historical patterns, but homicide rates have been rising in the past two years. This is easier to show in a chart…

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Where’s the Scholarly OA blog and the Predatory Journal List? (Third Update, 6.15.17)

Newest Update, June 15, 2017: The plot thickens, and yet we have clearer answers as to the disappearance of Beall’s List. Read the latest by Prasad Ravindranath at Science Chronicle: https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/44933113/posts/1493322021

original post January 18, 2017, updated February 13, 2017 and June 15, 2017

February 13 update: So, this story just keeps getting weirder. It seems that in a recent interview with science blogger Prasad Ravindranath, Jeffrey Beall significantly downplayed his plans to collaborate with Cabell’s on (re-)producing an ongoing list of flagged or potentially predatory journals and conference proceedings. Cabell’s responded in a shocked manner. And Beall, for his part, is feeling very much like he needs to move on to less controversial work at UC Denver. And that’s where we are with all that, folks.

Reminder – the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive has Beall’s List up through the end of 2016 there.

Jeffrey Beall’s running list of potentially scammy journals, publishers, and conferences has been taken down. What now?

Recently, in the process of putting together a paper on rumor research, I came across a handful of interesting articles in journals and conference proceedings that had been flagged on ScholarlyOA.com as potentially predatory and phony. I was disappointed, since they seemed like they were based on some solid work. I haven’t decided yet whether I plan to leave them out of further revisions of the paper or simply refer to them as unpublished manuscripts. Some of them involve mathematical sophistication that I am in no position to evaluate, and I therefore have to know for sure whether other mathematical modelling people have reviewed it.

For those of you unfamiliar with the world of peer-reviewed scholarly and scientific publishing, the word “predatory” here tends to mean charging submitters a large fee and then engaging in little to no peer review, resulting in the publication of journal issues or conference proceedings that have no recognition from, or participation in, organizations in their respective fields. Their editorial boards are also phony – scholars have been sometimes shocked to learn that they were on the masthead, and had never been sent manuscripts to review. They often have innocuous names that sound perfectly respectable, or are similar to, legitimate journals in a field. So let’s say there’s a legitimate journal called Journal of Crypto-Invertebrates. The predatory one might be called International Journal of Crypto-Invertebrate Research. Unless you noticed that the publisher wasn’t one of the major journal publishers, or called up the people on the editorial board, you might not catch it at all; the visible mimicry of real journals is fairly impressive. You might easily mistake one of these places for real if: you had not been aware of this growing problem, or if you were looking for research that is outside your discipline or specialization.

One note: the up-front-payment criteria doesn’t by itself doesn’t mean a publication is bogus; legitimate Open Access publishers seek payment from sponsoring institutions like universities and institutes, and then make the content free to readers. That’s just a newer and alternative payment model; the peer-review process is supposed to be the same, and they’re sponsored by the same scholarly and scientific publishers as other journals.

But the bogus publications are essentially pay-to-play mills. Although Beall’s List, as it has come to be known, has served as a handy double-check for the past few years, the problem was identified in science magazines about ten years ago.

Jeffrey Beall, who is a research librarian at the University of Colorado at Denver, hasn’t commented, as far as I know. But Cabell’s, a company that he has been working with, has only said to press inquiries that Beall removed the lists from his blog “due to threats and politics.” Cabell’s plans to put out its own list later this spring, 2017, according to Inside Higher Ed.

In the meantime, as of January 18, the archived ScholarlyOA.com lists have been reposted at Internet Archive-Wayback Machine.

More as I find out about it.

Updates (1/20/17):

  1. The Times Higher Education site published an article on the Beall’s List disappearance, pointing out two aspects of this situation that I hadn’t thought about: 1) a vetted list that results from actual investigation and engagement is important to librarians, too,  who need a way to differentiate journals that are shady or predatory versus ones that are legitimate but small, new, or independent journals. Also, the THE article points out that some scholars knowingly publish with these predatory places to boost their citation counts. Seems risky to me, but I guess it’s possible if you know your institution well enough that you feel like you can slip a publication by them.
  2. About the Internet Archive/Wayback Machine: yes, it does have mirrored sites abroad, including a distributed hosting project. [Translation: efforts to “back up” large portions of publically available web pages can continue even if IA/WM has a problem or two.]

Thinking Beyond the Couch-Hero and the All-Seeing Eye: getting up to date on Surveillance and Sociology

Anyone who listens to podcasts and has thought about surveillance, privacy, and the shaping of the self in the age of the selfie, alongside the silent corporate algorithms that channel our digital lives, should be listening to Benjamen Walker’s new series on his podcast Theory of Everything. Walker’s first in this series is “Burning Down the Panopticon” which raises absolutely overdue questions about our tendency to analyze surveillance and privacy issues using Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon model, which supposes a 360-degree gaze of an all-seeing, all-judging eye as a metaphor for new and insidious forms of social control.  Michel Foucault, of course, also harnessed the idea in his book Discipline and Punish, and the Panopticon became quickly unmoored from its penological settings.

That wasn’t a dishonest unmooring – both Bentham and Foucault saw the model as one that would be relevant way beyond the penitentiary walls. Bentham, the utilitarian, saw good applications of the model’s spread and Foucault, mainly bad ones that would ultimately serve unfreedom in quiet but effective ways. We’d all learn to “work on our own” to shape a self that expected constant surveillance. I’ve thought about this issue a lot, but truthfully not very carefully, ever since I wrote about the rise of reality crime shows in the 1990s. In 1998, Mark Fishman, along with Grey Cavender put together an edited volume, Entertaining Crime: Television Reality Programs, with ten chapters on varying aspects of what was then a burgeoning and somewhat unique genre. My chapter, “Armed with the Power of Television” explored the genre’s pretention to becoming a kind of entertainment-based civic tool in the United States, where the public sector was under siege and yet authoritarian populism ruled the day despite (or maybe because of) dropping crime rates.

Foucault’s take on the modern Panopticon was that it more or less supplanted the spectacular forms of punishment – public tortures and executions, for instance. In their place, is the ever more precise and dossiered scientific surveillance of the criminalized population. With the rise in reality crime programs, which were often co-produced with law enforcement agencies, my argument in “Armed with the Power” was that a new place for spectacle had been formed, with the passive-yet-praised-as-active audience inculpated and feeling like the couch-heroes that they were.

There’s also the dimension of data, surveillance, and media production reinventing memory and working-copy reality, as well.  “Armed with the Power” did address this “media as omniscient” move in reality crime programming, but the examples and observations were brief, partly because I was genuinely surprised and disturbed by it, and partly because that’s all I had – an observation. I didn’t know what to make of it then. Now, I feel like I do – ubiquitous data gathering and surveillance, even the democratically gathered kind, maybe even more so now, attempts to fill in all the unknowns with its personalized curation. And so a videotape of street brawl, or a politician walking across the stage, or a manager making a comment to a staffer, means whatever you can convince others that it means.

There’s misrepresentation, and factual nihilism, on the one hand, but the problems are now so much deeper – because they’re conjuring realities, not just distorting them — in the digital age. Walker points out the problems with using the Panopticon metaphor in the current situation. First, as he puts it, what happens when the “guard in the tower is disintermediated” and we routinely “compile our own files on ourselves” with every miniscule decision we make online, or at a payment register? Every electronic payment, loyalty card, social media like or post, every search on Google now added to Your Permanent Record.

The legacy of using the Panopticon metaphor to create a “simple minded” tale of government dragnet spying such as that uncovered by Edward Snowden is that we miss the big data guard tower that we are building for ourselves, through registration, online behavior and commerce.  I agree with Walker that the old model is not inaccurate, it’s just increasingly inadequate. Even when we use the Panopticon to explain our feelings of violation, or infringement, we keep forgetting to get back to the conversation about how all of this is shaping our behavior, our social relationships, and our sense of selves.

The world of surveillance studies needs to be reconsidered, although I’d have to say I’m way behind on my reading in this area. Appropriately, Amazon helped me out with many suggestions once I plugged a few names in. I’d already known the work of one of the most prolific writers and researchers in this area, David Lyon, Director of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University in Canada. I just started reading his book Surveillance after Snowden (2015). He also wrote a short piece for Time in which he spelled out how diffuse the problem is. Much of the data about ourselves that we deliver is done so seamlessly that we barely notice – we are asked to produce credentials for authorized usage for the most mundane of tasks. Social media, a less compulsory dimension, nonetheless evokes a sense of anxiety about our identity and social connections in us, even as it delivers to us terrific things we wouldn’t ever experience, or perhaps even access, otherwise.  Lyons, like Walker, would like to get back to that conversations of effects and costs. “It’s one thing to explain why people might self-surveil and another to ask the ethical question: Should we?”

Shoshanna Zuboff wrote a provocative article in Frankfurter Allgemeine in which she describes the emergence of surveillance capitalism, in which a significant source of profit extraction, business modeling, and new global economic development depends on storing data on our every move, certainly on-line, but increasingly off-line, too. “The assault on behavioral data is so sweeping,” she says “that it can no longer be circumscribed by the concept of privacy and its contests.”  Zuboff’s book, Master or Slave? The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization, isn’t out until Summer 2017, and I’m looking forward to it.

The Panopticon model requires centralization – which seemed to be what was going on at the time when I thought about reality crime programs. But hasn’t in some ways the tendency been the opposite – to the centrifugal, the phone camera, the body cam, the home surveillance system?  Yet also the street protest on Periscope, being live Tweeted? A great democratic tribunal as Bentham also imagined, keeping the guard tower honest, checking the prerogatives of power? That’s what we keep hoping.  But so much data. So much epistemic distrust. Editing and curation by the dispersed forces who cannot agree on What Just Happened.

I don’t want to exaggerate the differences between the digital age and the media of the modernist print era. Print narrative can tell any number of stories, too, mutually exclusive ones, shaped for eager and loyal audiences. But data transforms reality now, too. The example that many of us are familiar with is the erroneous credit report, or the crossed digital wires that create an inter-mingling of someone else’s financial activities with our own. It’s not a true abstract of your financial life, but it may as well be. Is your Facebook page really you? People have noticed how we idealize in social media, but what about how it idealizes us?  Not long ago, I started getting mobile adverts for a cool home-goods store. I think I’d accurately describe it as my taste, only slightly better. It was convenient. It also gave me digital chills.

Media transformations were rudimentary in the 1990s and guesses about where the digital juggernaut was going often turned out to be spectacularly wrong. To me, it’s not surprising that the networked society has enabled more surveillance; but what is surprising is how much privacy we gave up so easily to commercial interests. In my case, I think I succumbed out of convenience and FOMO. And now we have reached a point where, with the exception of some always vigilant, advanced-skill hacker types, most people would be hard-pressed to figure out how not to leave a trail of digital bits, ripe for the harvesting, in even the most ordinary transactions.

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I am one and you are too? Narcissism, violence, lessons not learned, and the case of the Hot Chocolate rapist

 

On October 9, 2016, the Daily Mail (UK) reported the death of Harry Barkas, Australia’s so-called “hot chocolate rapist” who was convicted of drugging and assaulting women to whom he offered rides home from nightclubs. At the time, this offender’s exploits were covered as a serial rape case, rather than attempting to shoehorn it into the public drink spiking scare narrative. In Drink Spiking and Predatory Drugging: A Modern History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), I wrote about the failure of the press and other public health and safety communicators to learn about the nature of this crime from key American and Australian serial cases like Barkas’. Below, I provide an adapted excerpt from my book that refocuses on misplaced trust, context, and links to a chapter that discusses the dynamics of this crime.

From Chapter 6, Who and Where are the Druggers? 

(Other chapters are available as book previews at Amazon.com and Google Books)

 

[…] Chef John Xydias of Melbourne was accused of drugging, raping, and videotaping 13 women he had met through work. In some cases, he was introduced to his victims by a man named Harry Barkas, who was, at roughly the same time Xydias got caught, accused of being the “Hot Chocolate” rapist. Barkas, who worked in a medical clinic and had access to drugs, approached women as they left nightclubs and offered them a ride home. According to a 2008 Herald Sun article, he then offered them hot chocolate into which he had slipped tranquilizers and sleeping pills, including Rohypnol. Barkas was charged with a string of attacks between 1991 and 2005, and Xydias between 1995 and 2006. Both were in their mid-40s.

Xydias typically met women through the restaurant business, and Barkas sometimes did, too.  The Age, a newspaper in Melbourne, reported that one of Barkas’ victims worked at the same restaurant he did and regarded him as “an older brother or uncle.”   Xydias drugged and filmed many women while dressing them up and assaulting them. Upon sentencing in 2010, when he was convicted of 86 charges relating to 11 victims, he told the court that the women only lodged charges against him as vengeance for not continuing a relationship with them. Like other such serial offenders, he claimed that the acts were consensual and that the women were heavy drinkers and drug users.

While it may be the case that the reason nearly all of the men [accused of multiple attacks] say the acts were consensual is strictly a legal strategy—when the prosecution has a recording of your raping behavior, there are not that many defenses left—it is possible that pathological fantasy, on some level, has made this claim seem real to the offenders. They often see themselves as decadent nightlife hedonists who push the boundaries—so they think, well, why wouldn’t or shouldn’t their victims be? As in, I am one and you are, too. As edgeplay, they might even consider it relatively tame— “just” drugs. Xydias’ pre-sentence psychiatric report called him emotionally disconnected, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.  Barkas’ report suggested a narcissistic personality disorder; his ability to be accountable for his actions was limited; he was suspected of many more assaults than he could be charged with due to lack of evidence.

There was some question of Xydias’ relationship to Barkas. Though they were childhood friends and frequented the same venues, they did not, apparently, offend against the same women. Barkas appears to have been more sporadic with his assaults, with a suspected cluster taking place in the mid-1990s and another right before his arrest, leaving a gap of more than a decade, according to the Herald Sun. Although police suspected there must have been more victims in between, that is not entirely clear. Barkas was sentenced to 13 years and Xydias, 28.

The legendary public-place drink spiking, followed by a carry-off and assault, as we have seen, has too many moving parts to really be very common. What we find in its place, much more commonly, is voluntary intoxication followed by misplaced trust, or coevolving with it, and then victimization in a private setting. As with acquaintance rape generally, it is really the moment of misplaced trust that is exploited by the assailant. Intoxication helps, of course, in reducing the ability to resist unwanted sex, and as such, is simply another tool to facilitate an act of violence. Drugging can make detail retention hazy enough that the victim questions what really happened, and may be more reluctant to report it, though this amnesia is not guaranteed, any more than it is with large amounts of alcohol or voluntary drug ingestion. Culture then piles on by blaming women who drink for anything that happens after. On both individual and collective level, the gaslighting begins. Some gaslighters are better at this sort of thing than others. [I continue in the book by talking about the US case of Jeffery Marsalis]

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The Opiate Overdose Crisis: An Experiment in Vancouver Suggests a New Approach

Across North America, first responders and hospitals report a deluge of overdoses among heroin users whose drugs are mixed with fentanyl, a strong synthetic opiate or the even more powerful carfentanil, which is used in veterinary anesthesia. Word from Vancouver is that public health workers have used a reagent test for the presence of fentanyl in other street drugs for the clients that they serve.

In addition to the dangers posed by heroin itself, these additives make street doses unpredictable in strength.  By volume, the synthetics are much more powerful, and street users depend upon illicit manufacturers and distributors to supply semi-predictable products. Although many street users now expect that the heroin they buy (and sometimes, the cocaine) will contain synthetics, they also have little or no way to know how carefully compounded these drugs are. Judging from the rapid rise in overdoses in recent weeks, the answer is that dosage chaos reigns.

Why Vancouver first? First, British Columbia is treating it as the emergency it is. It declared it as such in April 2016, with the CBC reporting that by June, 71 overdose deaths had taken place and 60% involved fentanyl.  But uniquely, the city has a government-funded organization called Insite, a supervised injection site for drug users. Nurses and other clinic workers staff the place, and it is the only program like it right now in North America. Insite also has some health care services, provides clean needles and can respond to overdoses on site.

Drug users bring in their own drugs, and they are free from the risk of arrest while they are there. This also provides an opportunity for drug testing. Consumers of the drugs can learn about the composition of the drugs they are about to inject, while the clinic can gain information about, and report on, trends in purity and composition of street drugs.

Which brings us to the potential of fentanyl test strips. Francine Diep reports in Pacific Standard magazine that fentanyl testing may – emphasis on may – provide some benefit to drug users by detecting its presence. Insite ran a pilot testing program this summer, using the strips for a month on as many samples as they could. 90% of the heroin samples contained fentanyl, and some of the cocaine samples did, as well.

There are two key issues here. First – how accurate the tests are from a strictly scientific viewpoint: what are the rates of type I and II errors, and what is the specificity to the problem of an adulterant like fentanyl as opposed to cross-reactions to other less deadly ingredients? The strips were originally designed to test urine, and in lab settings it has a 6% false positive rate and a 0% false negative rate. Most of the medical consultants on Insite’s project felt that it might do just as well in water-dissolved samples at the clinic. In the abstract, the low false negative rate is good news. The test strip doesn’t react to carfentanil, however.

It should be kept in mind that some users actively seek out synthetic opiate pills, either preferring them to injecting heroin or using them as a bridge at times when heroin is hard to come by.  People who buy hydrocodone illegally may be getting fentanyl instead, or a mixture, and again, the unexpected strength can be deadly. It appears that fentanyl in a hydrocodone preparation is what killed legendary musician Prince at age 57 in Minnesota this past spring.

Also, to what extent does a positive result for fentanyl discourage a user from injecting the drugs? Diep notes that few people at the Vancouver site seem willing to throw away contaminated drugs altogether. But staffers suggest they may be willing to lower their intake if they know the powerful synthetic is present.  The clinic reports that 86% of the drug samples they tested contained some fentanyl, which implies that at least for the population that uses that clinic, it may be hard to avoid.

Fentanyl is now everywhere. It can be purchased on cryptomarkets online, where either tablets or ingredients can be obtained. Making it is not that difficult, and mid-level distributors can move into manufacture. It can also be diverted from legitimate medical use, as it is often prescribed to people with cancer.

Similar ideas for other cities have been stymied by an insistence on abstinence and prohibition-based approaches and legislation which inhibits or quashes altogether such harm-reduction opportunities, in both Canada in the US. The only recent harm-reduction initiative that hasn’t been aggressively and routinely blocked is overdose-reversal medication like naloxone, which many communities distribute to first responders or make available to the public by prescription.

But as synthetic mixes hit the streets, naloxone is less effective. Reports from Indiana suggest that when carfentanil is present, even five or six doses of naloxone may not reverse the effect. Carfentanil is also powdery and light, posing risks to police and EMTs who respond to places where the drug is present just by touching or inhaling it, in a similar way that methamphetamine making can expose others to risk.

So, the way to think of the new synthetic adulterant problem is: a mess we don’t know how to handle, situated on top of a mess that we do know more about than we are willing to do.  You’d think decades of a failed War on Drugs – drugs won, in case you haven’t been keeping up – would demonstrate the need for greater humility and innovation in policy making. The pilot project in Vancouver can save lives and prevent injury, and similar programs could also tell us a great deal about drug adulteration, and how best to protect public health.

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.

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.