Drug testing: FTIR for festivals

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  • Published: Aug 1, 2016
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: Infrared Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Drug testing: FTIR for festivals

Festival transformation

Blue skies thinking on drugs at festivals. Photo by David Bradley

A pop music festival is probably the last place you would expect to see a £25000, portable Fourier transform infrared spectrometer. But, under canvas a team of analytical chemists and drug advisers is hoping to help festivalgoers avoid the pitfalls of taking illegal drugs whose true constituents they know nothing about.

While, most festivals state very clearly that drugs are illegal and will not be tolerated on their sites and this article in no way condones the use of illegal drugs, it is rare and has been since at least as early as the infamous Woodstock and Isle of Wight festivals that music fans and musicians alike are almost certain to be partaking of illicit mind-altering substances other than alcohol, tobacco and caffeine at such events. Festivalgoers of the past had acid (LSD), marijuana, cocaine, speed (amphetamines) and a few other psychoactive compounds to purportedly enhance their experience of the music and stage show. Today, however, the range of compounds open to abuse, including a slew of new chemicals often referred to as herbal highs, is vast with a vast array of amphetamine analogues, such as MDMA (E, ecstasy) genetic variants on cannabis, mephedrone, tranquilisers - both human and veterinary - and various forms of cocaine and countless other drugs are widely available.

Analytical advice

The analytical advice team known as The Loop offer a rather unique service at festivals. Those with something interesting in their stash can turn up at the group's tent, offer a sample entirely anonymously and the chemists will smash, dab and analyse using standard chemical tests as well as FTIR. They can then report back to the festivalgoer in a short time exactly what is in their stash, whether it is the ketamine, ecstasy, crystal meth, acid or cocaine they hoped for or something potentially even more dangerous, or perhaps simply innocuous. To stay within the law, the team doesn't give the sample back and offers an amnesty if the user wishes to hand over their stash for safe disposal. Alternatively, the user can leave the tent untouched by the law, but knowing exactly what it is in their tent that they hoped to smoke or snort.

One recent festival which was reported on by various publications including The Vice, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph was the Cambridgeshire festival everyone knows about called "The Secret Garden Party" was the first to offer this kind of drug test for festival participants. Vice magazine reports that The Loop tested 250 samples during the festival weekend and found many to contain what the user hoped they would contain according to the spectroscopy, but also several that had been cut with antimalarial and non-psychoactive prescription drugs sold as tablets of E. There was even one case of supposed pills that were coloured cement, which would do nothing for your head but might crack your teeth or block your bowel if taken the wrong way. The Loop team could also demonstrate to festivalgoers whether a particular pill contained more of the active ingredient than would normally be present and so advise on being aware of the dose that might be taken inadvertently. It is impossible to tell just by visual inspection whether a tablet contains a potentially lethal dose of MDMA for example, whereas a chemical analysis can give you the precise number of milligrams. When it comes to pills, if a user does not have access to an onsite analytical laboratory they suggest that users "crush, dab and wait" to see whether a particular pill is safe to use or not.

Planned respect

Loop team member Henry Fisher told The Independent that part of the plan was to treat potential drug users with some respect and in turn those users might take health advice from experts in the spirited in which it is intended. He suggested that such a notion, if extended to drug policy beyond the confines of the festival fence might even improve outcomes for users.

"The FTIR is fantastic as far as it goes, as it allows us to identify a sample in under a couple of minutes and feed that back to the drugs workers so that they can advise the client on how to proceed safely if they are resolved to take the drug," Loop team member Jens Thomas told SpectroscopyNOW. "For probably 80-90% of what we see, the FTIR is enough; we can identify the primary component and then run a simple subtraction analysis to see if the sample is substantially adulterated with anything else."

Related Links

The Loop, 2016: "We are The Loop"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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