Drug-checking services: effective approach to harm reduction

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 (Image: Pixabay  CC0)

(Image: Pixabay CC0)

Drug-checking services with substance analyses help reduce the risks associated with drug use. A study commissioned by the FOPH shows that this service helps protect users from overdoses and adverse reactions to adulterants. The study also underlines the potential of drug checking for identifying vulnerable individuals at an early stage and for monitoring the drug market.

In cities such as Basel, Bern, Geneva or Zurich, small quantities of drugs can now be submitted anonymously to a counselling centre for analysis. Such tests are also offered in certain clubs or at festivals. The feedback from the substance analysis is incorporated in a professional counselling session with the person concerned. Each year around 4,000 samples are tested in Switzerland, mainly cocaine, MDMA/ecstasy and amphetamine. In over half of the cases, the tested sample posed an increased risk to the user.

Effective awareness raising

In order to investigate the effects of these drug-checking services, the FOPH asked Interface and FHNW (the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland) to carry out a study. The study shows that drug-checking services can raise the awareness of drug users concerning less risky drug use, even preventing fatalities in extreme cases. They can also enable the information to get to the harder-to-reach target group of occasional drug users.

Accordingly, nine out of ten individuals interviewed in connection with the study stated that they had used less of, or even stopped using, the tested drugs after receiving a substance warning. A quarter of those affected forwarded the warning to other people. The most important warnings are also disseminated online, notably on the website infodrog.ch, where they are seen by over 1,000 individuals a month in Switzerland.

Monitoring the drug market

Thanks to the drug-checking services, moreover, vulnerable individuals can be identified at an early stage and referred to appropriate support agencies. Finally, a systematic analysis of the substance samples as part of the monitoring process can provide information about the drug market and reveal problematic developments. According to the study, these are all relevant functions that can be perfected and expanded in order to further improve the cost-benefit ratio of the service offering.

As early as the 1990s, Switzerland was one of the first countries to provide such services. Buyers do not usually know anything about the quality of drugs available on the black market. As a result, even those who use drugs occasionally are taking potentially fatal risks.