Check Your Pills. Check Your Life. ChEck iT!!
High quality on-site testing of illicit substances. Information, counselling and safer use measures at raves in Austria.
Harald Kriener & Rainer Schmid
Verein Wiener Sozialprojekte, Rotenmuhlgasse 26, Vienna, A – 1120, Austria. Phone no: +43 _ 1 810 1301/ 501 Fax no: +43 – 1 810 1301 9 E-mail:
‘ChEck iT!’, founded in 1997, is a project which offers its services at huge ‘raves’ of up to 15,000 visitors in the city of Vienna and other parts of Austria. A new generation of drug users and the flood of new substances would have been problematic and so there was an innovative pool of methods by a team consisting of 6 or 7 chemists from the Department of Toxicology at the University Hospital of Vienna. The other part of the team is made up of about 10 social workers and psychologists. ‘ChEck iT!’ was initiated in cooperation with the drug policy coordination of Vienna which gives financial, political and moral support in all stages of the process. ‘ChEck iT!’ was present at 6 huge raves in 1997 and 1998 and in 3 raves at the end of October and November 1999. The smallest had an audience of 1500 visitors, the largest one around 15,000 people.
‘ChEck iT!’ offers information and counselling services which are mostly about the effects and dangers of psychoactive substances and methods of harm reduction. It is also involved with related problems such as addiction, physical or psychological problems and topics within the family, the school, the workplace or the law. ‘ChEck iT!’ offers a high quality analysis of illicit substances to the public with results available within 15 to 30 minutes. We also recommend harm reduction through giving information on safer use such as advising people to drink water, as well as giving safer sex advice and distributing free condoms.
At the rave we have a ‘sample tent’ within another tent where social workers and psychologists are in contact with ravers. People come into the sample tent alone, one after the other, and they present their pill which is then weighed and documented by digital photography. The users have to give a part of their sample which is done by stripping it onto a glass paper so a few milligrams of the pill will remain. This sample is weighed and taken to the laboratory which is at the back of the tent. Our philosophy is to give exact answers regarding the content of the sample. This is done with quite sophisticated equipment which is not cheap or easy to organise, but it can be done.
The first check is for amphetamine contents, qualitatively and quantitatively. If we see another compound besides amphetamine then we have another test system with a database of about 900 compounds - which allows us to detect other ingredients. It is possible to give out a result within 15 - 40 minutes, depending on the system we have to use. The whole procedure is based on high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) which is fast and highly exact. It has nothing to do with a marquis-test or other so called "fast-tests"
In the tent where the social workers are, the results are shown under a number, not under a logo. Therefore only the person who brought the sample knows exactly which of the results is his / hers. All results are shown in the tent so everybody can see them. If another substance is found, warnings are written on red result paper to show either very high content of a drug, a mixture of different drugs or that it is a totally different drug from the sample that has been given.
‘ChEck iT!’ only goes to large rave parties with 1000 people or more. It is difficult to go to smaller parties because of the high standards of sophisticated and large equipment needed. We have been to nine raves so far and seen about 650 samples so an average of 70 samples have to be analysed per night which is quite a lot.
At three rave parties in 2 months of 1999, there were 175 samples - 130 were bought as ecstasy and 104 were actually ecstasy which shows a high percentage of pure ecstasy. There has always been quite a high percentage of speed, so in these three rave parties we have seen interestingly a very high purity of samples which is contrary to earlier experiences. A lot of the ecstasy that was sold in 1998 did not actually contain any MDMA, and this was the same trend for amphetamines. What turned out especially in the beginning is that people showed us a lot of pure pharmaceuticals, which were sold as fakes or contained some additions such as chinidin or atropine.
The people at the raves are on average 20 years old. Everyone will come back and test again as the acceptance and trust is very high. Interestingly, 50% of the people say the results influence their consumption and a very high percentage of the people presenting a pill - especially in the early evening - say they will wait for the result before they consume the drug. Basically they are interested in seeing a result before consuming. If the response is not fast enough, we get feedback from the people coming to test who say that they are waiting too long. When there is a bad result that is different from what they expect, two-thirds say they will not consume and they will warn their friends. If there was no testing, 30% said they would just take it without considering anything more; 25% would ask their friends; and 23% would try to test it themselves, taking a little bit less or in another way.
At the last three raves we had contact with more than seven hundred ravers, and around two hundred contacts were long, in-depth discussions. The average age of the people that were interested in our project was 20.4 years and 66 % were men. So two-thirds of all interested people are men and I think this is the norm for the general audience at raves in Austria.
The topics that are discussed most often are effects and dangers of psychoactive substances, acute and long term dangers, and effects of risk reduction. The second and third rank topics are questions about drug taking and questions about the project itself: who pays for what; what is the legal status of the project; are you working together with the police; how good is the analysis; what is being done with the results, etc. Then we discuss topics such as addiction and dependence, as well as legal questions and problems with friends, the family, eating problems and sometimes issues such as sexual abuse.
This project is quite successful first of all with the users because we are following an approach that accepts and values the people, their faults and their feelings. They are taken seriously even if we do not always agree with their way of using psychoactive substances, and we always try to talk about this in a very rational way. We are a well-informed team. Users do not wait long for their results, and drug checking is exact and free of charge. Most people say they would pay for the service but no more than five Euro. There is also a ‘chill out’ space to sit and relax and to talk.
Why is the project successful with the public? There was a great media response from the very beginning onwards and a lot of politicians and police are now in favour of the project. We had a very slow and safe start; at the first event nobody except the team and the rave organisers knew about us. There was no media inside, so when we had a press conference the next day we could publish very detailed results, and we could convey why an approach like ours is very sensible and successful.
We also have a multi-disciplinary team of specialists from different fields including chemists, social workers, psychologists and people from the drug administration, so we can talk differently to different target groups. We have had a very good response from users and we have been doing scientific evaluations from the very beginning, which is very important for a lot of financiers.
We have been working step by step, so our expansion of the programme is also very slow. We try to make sure that our methods are already accepted before we expand the programme or do something different. The project itself is about drug checking information and counselling. These are the main points to focus on – it is already a very progressive programme and we concentrate on these topics and do not talk about the legalisation of drugs or other issues.
We produced some posters for information material. There are different posters for different substances; each substance has a different colour and people associate the colour to the substance. The poster also contains the chemical names, the street names, the legal issues (positive ones as well as negative ones) and measures of risk reduction. These are also successful.
We are aware that dealers will also come and check their products and you cannot escape that. We do not distinguish between different people. The fact that we show only anonymous results means that we do not help to advertise particular drugs. That is the reason why we do not show logos on-site so that we do not help the dealer to advertise his drug. His credibility is not increased when he goes around and says, "Number ten is my drug", because he cannot prove that.
At the last event there was actually a guy who was selling ecstasy who was standing in front of the results table. If people came up and said, ‘oh look at that 150 milligrams of MDMA’, he would say, "Yes, they are my pills". When we realised this we asked him to leave the tent because something like this can really harm our project and it is not in our interests to make advertisements for particular brands or for particular dealers.
We are aware of the fact that people come to test a drug and then it turns out to be a bad drug. Naturally, they have a problem because they have invested in it and now they should throw it away. One answer is to try to sell it again and while it is clear we are aware of that fact, we cannot change it. However, it is not only a question of how the individual is affected but how these issues have an effect on the general public. There are a lot more people who see the results than just the consumers, the people who test and the people who came for testing. On the whole, it gives rave visitors or people at raves an overall impression of what the situation is and which substances do appear, so that we are able to warn people directly. Taking the case of last year, for example, we could point out that there was a lot of amphetamine sold instead of ecstasy and people should be made aware of that fact.