Adulterants and altruism: A qualitative investigation of “drug checkers” in North America

Joseph J. Palamar, Patricia Acosta, Rachel Sutherland, Michele G. Shedlin, Monica J. Barratt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: “Drug checking” has become a common harm reduction method used to test illicit substances, such as ecstasy, for purity and/or the presence of adulterants. Formal drug-checking services have been operating for decades, and the use of personal reagent test kits appears to be relatively common; however, little attention has been devoted to understanding the role and broader experiences of ‘drug-checkers’ (i.e., people who test their own and/or other people's substances). As such, it remains unknown who is engaging in this practice, their motivations for drug-checking, and what barriers they may experience. We addressed this research gap by interviewing people who check drugs about their experiences, with a goal of better understanding drug checking practices. Methods: We conducted in-depth interviews with 32 adults in North America who reported testing drugs. Coding was conducted in an inductive manner and thematic analysis was used to identify relevant themes. Results: Over half (56.2%) of our sample was affiliated with a drug checking organization. Among non-affiliated checkers (43.8%), the majority (57.1%) tested for friends, 21.4% tested only for themselves, and 21.4% were people who sold drugs and tested for their clients. Motivations were driven largely by altruism, described by checkers as wanting to protect their peers from exposure to adulterants. People interviewed who sold drugs were altruistic in the same manner. Barriers to checking—particularly at nightclubs and festivals—included perceived illegality of test kits and denied approval to test drugs at venues, although many checkers circumvented this barrier by checking drugs without such approval. Conclusions: Drug checkers in North America seek to educate people who use drugs about the risk of exposure to unexpected substance types, but they face various barriers. Policy change could help ensure that these potentially life-saving services can be provided without fear of fines and/or criminal prosecution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)160-169
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
StatePublished - Dec 2019


  • Altruism
  • Drug checking
  • Ecstasy
  • Harm reduction
  • New psychoactive substances

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Health Policy


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