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How Online Drug Reporting Yields Better Harm Reduction

When I used to regularly browse Reddit’s r/Opiates subreddit, I’d sometimes see posts titled “Fentanyl Warning: (City, State).” Even though the site isn’t that active in hosting such warnings, sharing reports on drug forums like fentanyl warnings is an effective harm reduction practice.

Screenshot of the header of opioid-centered drug forum r/Opiates, a subreddit of Reddit.com.
r/Opiates’ header

The most recent fentanyl warning on r/Opiates is three months old. Looking back on other “fentanyl warnings,” they’re few and far between — there seems to be no more than two per month over the last year. Jynxies Natural Habitat is a Blogspot-based website dedicated to sharing the owner’s own stamp reports and relaying submissions from readers, though it’s been defunct for a half-decade. Reddit’s r/Glassine, too, was dedicated to stamp reports prior to its closure over two years ago. Free-standing sites like the now-defunct Opiophile, Drugs-Forum, and Bluelight have also been home to similar reports — though the latter two sites aren’t defunct, they’re not as active in subjective drug experience reporting as we’d like them to be.

While I’m not privy to all online subjective drug experience reporting platforms, something I am sure of is that we’d all benefit from having access to readily-accessible, active drug experience reporting websites.

The Need for Drug Reporting Sites Comes From the “Black” Part of the Black Market

All across the United States — hell, even across your county — the quality of illicit, unregulated drugs varies. As drug users, we never know what we’re getting.

Ever heard of that myth that fentanyl sometimes finds its way into the meth supply? It’s not a myth — it’s 100% true! Fentanyl has been found in non-opioid drugs like cocaine, and, of course, illicit opioids like heroin and counterfeit pharmaceutical opioid tablets.

Roughly 25 fake Mallinckrodt oxycodone pills, marked M 30, that contain fentanyl.
Fentanyl-laced counterfeit opioid tablets made to look like Mallinckrodt’s 30-milligram, instant-release oxycodone tablets. Courtesy of DEA.

We all know, as active American drug users, that fentanyl can very well be in any sack of dope you get. The concern with fentanyl is that there’s a relatively small threshold between an active dose and a potentially-fatal one. Another problem is that, due to the unregulated nature of the illicit drug market, manufacturers don’t use pharmaceutical-quality manufacturing processes — in other words, this results in “hot spots,” or areas of varied strength across batches of illegal drugs.

Keep in mind that we don’t need drug reporting websites or other platforms solely because of fentanyl. Rather, we need drug reporting sites because of the nature of the black market — without the often-pesky regulatory bodies that oversee commerce, the market lacks even a shred of accountability.

Dark Net-Based Illicit Drug Markets, in a Way, Act as Drug Reporting Sites

In the “real world,” of course, we don’t have to do any drug reporting. However you may get drugs, you’re not required to leave any reviews or reports of batches you come across.

On “the onions” — the phrase colloquially refers to dark net markets that can be visited via the Tor Browser, the logo of which is an onion — you’re incentivized to leave reviews.

With most modern platforms, the more, the better, and the more accurate reviews bring you more value in the eyes of vendors. Vendors like doing business with people who’re both motivated and thorough in leaving reviews, as better reviews stand the chance of boosting business.

If you didn’t already know, the path to success on any dark net market is to pull in great reviews on a consistent basis who are also well-reviewed themselves. On an above-ground peer-to-peer sales platform like eBay, for example, we can take accusations of theft to police and — who knows? — maybe even to court. We can leave reviews on other platforms, too, even if we have’t done business on them.

With dark net markets, you’re not taking any complaints to police or industry regulators — unless you like going to jail, not passing go, nor collecting $200 (yes, that’s a Monopoly joke). You might not be able to leave reviews on other platforms because the vendor might not be active on them. Also, with all dark net markets, you have to buy something from vendors in order to have the opportunity to review them. You can post on forums, naming-and-shaming vendors that’ve done you wrong, but that’s about it in the line of recourse.

The Importance of Drug Checking

If you don’t know what you’re consuming, you can’t truly be safe. Also, if you don’t know how pure your drugs are, you face similar safety issues. Drug checking helps people make better decisions.

Drug checking also gets people involved in harm reduction.

Here in Northwest Tennessee, most fellow drug users aren’t familiar with rapid fentanyl test strips — or, I should say, at least they weren’t familiar with them before I put them on game. These test strips are the most popular, in-demand supply I give out. I wish I had more, as they get more people interested in harm reduction in general. Hell, they make people more interested in taking care of themselves.

Thirdly, drug checking boosts “public health surveillance and response strategies to prevent harms associated with illicit drug use,” says a 2018 International Journal of Drug Policy study.

By extension, online drug experience reporting accomplishes similar results — it improves drug users’ decision-making, boosts involvement and interest in harm reduction, aids public health surveillance, and helps build well-rounded, effective public health responses.

Drug checking, defined by DanceSafe as “a harm reduction service that helps drug users avoid ingesting unknown and potentially more dangerous adulterants found in street drugs,” varies from drug experience reports in several ways:

  • Drug checking objectively, empirically determines what samples contain and (though not very often) in what proportions; experience reports don’t.
  • Experience reports are often entirely subjective in nature. Sometimes, reporters do use rapid fentanyl test strips or reagent tests, for example.
  • The primary focus of drug experience reports is on people’s personal experiences with drugs, not their guesses as to what to what they’ve consumed contains.
  • Lastly, drug experience reports are typically shared in real-time, whereas there’s often a several-day delay in the empirical chemical analyses reported by outlets like DrugsData.org.

Are There Any Widely-Used, Go-To Platforms for Finding and Leaving Drug Reports?

DanceSafe, for example, is one of the largest drug-checking entities in the world. The non-profit organization also creates and distributes educational material; at festivals and other events, the entity offers water, earplugs, condoms, peer counseling services, and event patrol oversight (i.e., making sure dance floors are clear of potential hazards). DanceSafe doesn’t publish its results, unfortunately, but the group said “we are hoping to when [Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy] has been more widely introduced” in a Facebook message dated Monday, April 20th.

The Erowid Center runs DrugsData.org, which happens to be “the best option for test results right now,” according to DanceSafe. DrugsData.org’s list of samples of often-illicit drugs that have been tested via gas chromatography–mass spectrometry, or GC-MS for short.

While this organization is good at what it does, tests can be downright expensive, ranging anywhere from $40 for whole, pressed ecstasy tablets; research chemical samples, any non-pressed ecstasy, and blotter costs $100. Testing herbal supplements and pharmaceutical tablets, powders, and capsules costs $150.

To get an idea of how active the site is, it’s got two entries from April 17th, 15 from April 8th, 23 from March 22nd, two from March 20th, six from March 13th, 38 from March 9th, and four from March 6th. I believe this resource is the best publicly-available aggregation of empirically-tested drug samples on the Internet right now.

Just one glance at DrugsData.org and it’s easy to see that the Erowid Center project isn’t the type of resource to host drug users’ personal, anecdotal experiences — again, keep in mind DrugsData.org is for drug checking, not subjective drug experience reports. While Erowid, also an Erowid Center property, hosts these subjective drug experience reports, they don’t feature images or location.

At least in my experience, people tend not to turn to Erowid for location- or batch-specific drug experience reports — “stamp reports,” in other words. It seems like many drug users in my area, especially those that are the most disadvantaged or at the highest risk of experiencing drug-related problems, aren’t aware of web-based drug resources. Of course, they aren’t too keen on sifting through lengthy personal accounts of drug use.

Don’t get it twisted — Erowid is a solid resource. We just don’t have any active online platforms for sharing short-form, readily-digestible drug experience reports. Also, of those that do exist, none of them — to my knowledge, and please correct me if I’m wrong — condone location sharing. And I think location-sharing is very important in sharing drug experience reports and empirical drug-checking results.

The Importance of Location in Online Drug Experience Reporting

On Reddit’s r/Opiates subreddit, for example, community members aren’t allowed to share their location. Moderators are incentivized to discourage such sharing and actively censor such posts out of self-preservation. Reddit doesn’t want to help people find illicit drugs. By avoiding location, r/Opiates stands a much better chance of avoiding a swift banhammer strike.

For example, in March 2018, Reddit banned r/DarkNetMarkets for “a violation of Reddit’s policy against transactions involving prohibited goods or services.” Countless other drug-related subreddits have been dismantled for similar reasons. 

I agree, we’re better off with a r/Opiates subreddit that doesn’t allow location-sharing than without one at all. However, we need somewhere that facilitates location-specific sharing.

Batches of illicit drugs vary wildly by location — this is why location-specific drug experience reporting is so important. For example, in Philadelphialots of street heroin contains xylazine, known colloquially as “sleep cut.” Also, due to a lack of regulation, illegal drug markets’ batches similarly vary wildly.

The Issue With These Tests

Remember how expensive getting a DrugsData.org test is? The layperson can’t readily afford these tests.

Also, these tests aren’t performed instantly. In the real world, how often are drug users like me willing to wait after copping drugs?

Oh so often, we use drugs within minutes or hours of buying them. Many of us can’t afford to wait to use — well, it’s more appropriate for me to say that we’re not willing to wait to use, whether we’re just impatient or we want to send withdrawal symptoms packing.

Lastly, chemical analyses might not always match up with subjective drug experience reports. Although these breakdowns identify what substances drugs contain, we can’t always predict how people will react to them.

In other words, DrugsData.org-style analyses just aren’t practical. They’re important, yeah — don’t get me wrong. They’re just not readily available or practical for the vast majority of active drug users like me.

Virtually Anybody Can Get Involved

In order for an online drug experience reporting website to have utility, it needs to be readily-accessible. In other words, for it to be worth half a shit, it needs to be easy to access.

In my experience, people who use drugs in rural West and Middle Tennessee aren’t generally aware of web-based drug resources, whether it be Erowid, a drug-related subreddit, or a mail-based safe drug use supply distributor like NEXT Distro.

When People Get Active in Harm Reduction, They’re More Likely to Support Harm Reduction

Used rapid fentanyl test strips (FTS). One line, as shown in the left, represents a positive result, whereas two lines, as shown in the right, represents a negative result.
Used fentanyl test strips (positive result on the right, negative result on the left)

Like I already mentioned, around here, people are usually blown away by how “cool” fentanyl test strips are. Some people have been impressed by the small, already-balled-up, perfectly-sized cottons I distribute.

These people are more friendly to accepting syringes, naloxone, and other safe drug use supplies; solicit advice about proper injection practices and general drug-related best practices; and becoming interested in what we call “harm reduction.”

Platforms that allow people to share subjective drug experience reports will similarly get people, particularly active drug users, interested in harm reduction — even if they don’t know what “harm reduction” is.

Drug-Checking Websites Aren’t a Bad Thing

Don’t think that drug-checking result sites like DrugsData.org are a bad thing — they’re great!

What I am saying is that we don’t have a sufficient means of readily sharing subjective drug experience reports with others. And, while DrugsData.org is drug-related, subjective drug experience report-sharing is an entirely different thing.

What Does Sufficient Drug Experience Reporting Look Like?

I’ll be the first to tell you — I don’t know. I don’t know what the ideal drug experience reporting hub or framework would look like. I don’t know what problems might arise in creating or operating one.

I’d imagine that creating such a platform is risky because of its tie to illicit drugs. What if you get accused of helping people buy or sell illicit drugs? What if someone sources drugs from someone they met through your website and experiences a fatal overdose — don’t you think you could potentially be implicated?

Also, again, drug-checking reports from DrugsData.org and company are beneficial to our cause as harm reductionists. We don’t need to get rid of any existing sites to bring about a better world of subjective drug experience reporting.

By Daniel Garrett

I'm a self-employed writer, long-term drug user, and resident of rural Tennessee. Find me on Twitter at @DanielGarrettHR or email me at danpgarr@ut.utm.edu.

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