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  • The drug test: What next for Berlin’s drug checking programme?

Burning Issue

The drug test: What next for Berlin’s drug checking programme?

Berlin's drug checking programme just marked its one year anniversary, but with huge demand and limited resources, how certain is the programme's future?

Illustration: Andy Berry

Heute leider nicht” isn’t just something you hear from a Berghain bouncer – you might get the same response at your local drug checking centre as well. In June of last year, the Berlin Senate introduced the city’s first state-funded drug checking programme. While drug safety activists rejoiced, the win was quickly dulled by the project’s limited capacity: only about 40 samples can be analysed each week, leading hundreds of people – and counting – to be turned away since the project’s inception. Berlin has a reputation for hedonism, but this kind of demand also reveals a population that wants to be safer.

Drug checking is the chemical analysis of recreational drugs, a process that identifies the dosage and chemical composition of a given substance. The aim is to better inform consumers about what they intend to consume and provide neutral information about the potential harm associated with different substances.

While some other European countries – the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Spain, Switzerland – have offered centralised drug checking since the early 1990s, it was only last year that the Berlin Senate finally implemented their own such programme – for many a glaring oversight, given that Berlin profits off a flourishing club scene fuelled in part by recreational drug use.

The win was quickly dulled by the project’s limited capacity

A study of the Berlin party scene in 2019 found that two thirds of surveyed partygoers reported “risky drug consumption behaviour”. These same partygoers are part of a cohort that, in 2017, injected €1.4 billion into the Berlin economy via club tourism. The €200,000 allotted in the 2024/2025 budget for Berlin’s drug checking programme pales in comparison.

Add to this the current drug landscape of Berlin, where drug-related deaths have increased steadily since 2012 alongside an increase in the consumption of almost all major illicit substances over the last decade. It’s clear that more drug harm reduction interventions are needed in the city. As the programme enters its second year, the question remains: why isn’t Berlin doing more?

Lab work

Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Contamination is rife in the illegal drug world, as drugs are often ‘cut’ or mixed with other substances to increase supply. Cutting can occur at any stage of the drug supply chain, so a solemn promise of ‘purity’ from your local dealer carries no guarantees. Common cutting agents for cocaine can range from laundry detergent to laxatives; often the agents of choice tend to be legal chemicals that imitate or ‘enhance’ expected effects.

Lidocaine, for example, is a local anaesthetic that can mimic some of the effects of cocaine, such as numbing of the throat and nose, tricking users into believing the quality of their cocaine is better than it is.

Another looming concern is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid where as little as 2 milligrammes can be fatal. Fentanyl became a terrifying addition to the Berlin party scene lexicon when, earlier this year, clubbers warned of fentanyl appearing in home test strips via Instagram and Reddit. While the Berlin drug checking project had, as of November, found no trace of fentanyl in any of the samples tested, international concern remains over a potential surge in the European drug market. Other concerns include an increase in the concentration of MDMA in pills, with almost 90% of all MDMA pills tested in Berlin since 2023 containing high doses of the substance.

Contamination is rife in the illegal drug world

The Berlin drug checking programme operates in collaboration with the organisations FixPunkt in Neukölln, Schwulenberatung Berlin in Schöneberg and Vista in Kreuzberg. People can bring their drugs to one of three drug counselling centres during their weekly consultation hours with no prior appointment. Due to the high demand, not everyone who comes during these hours is guaranteed an appointment, and there’s often a limit of one drug test per person.

The centres conduct a mandatory counselling session where users can ask trained counselling professionals any questions they might have about the drugs they intend to consume. The samples are then taken to an external lab run by the State Institute for Judicial and Social Medicine. People receive their results a few days later, although delays can occur if unknown or novel substances are identified. At no stage during the process do you have to identify yourself, as the results are relayed via a unique identifier and the given sample is assigned a code word. Even for the most Datenschutz-vigilant, you can remain completely off-grid throughout the whole process.

The warnings war

To many, the need for an available drug testing service is obvious, but not everyone agrees. Critics of drug checking often point to the possibility that such a service could stoke drug use. The German Federal Ministry of Health wrote in a 2018 statement that “the federal government sees the danger that a negative test result could be misunderstood by users as encouragement to consume drugs…. it reflects a supposed security that cannot be given to consumers.”

Not everyone who comes during these hours is guaranteed an appointment

However, drug checking is not a new experiment. It has existed in other countries for decades, and studies of other programmes have found that the existence of drug checking does not incentivise greater drug use. Rather, drug checking actually encourages more cautious behaviour. A 2020 study on the Berlin party scene found that the majority of participants would both use drug checking if available and alter their consumption patterns if they were given unexpected information about their drugs. In 2023, 84% of people who accessed drug checking in Berlin had never had contact with an addiction support system before, meaning this is a tool for providing support and education to a previously unreached population.

It also encourages safer use for people who may not directly use the service: in centralising collected information on tested substances, public alerts can be sent out early about particularly dangerous drugs on the market. For example, in 2014 a batch of ‘Superman ecstasy’ pills in the Netherlands were found to contain a lethal dose of PMMA (paramethoxymethamphetamine), a glass-like plastic dangerous to ingest. In EU countries with centralised drug checking, warnings were issued and first responders informed. But in the UK, where drug checking infrastructure was not yet in place, four people died from the pills. In Berlin, people who use drugs can check up-to-date warnings on the official drug checking website or via the Knowdrugs app.

Testing patience

Illustration: Andy Berry

Drug checking existed in Berlin for a brief window in the mid-1990s thanks to a collaboration between Charité hospital and the organisation Eve & Rave. Together they provided drug checking from February 1995 through September 1996, when the police raided their offices, halting operations and leading to the arrest of three members of Eve & Rave. They were charged with possession of narcotics – but the charges were ultimately dropped.

This case had lasting impacts on the drug safety landscape of Germany. After the proceedings, the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM), which is responsible for issuing licences to handle narcotics, greatly restricted Charité and other research institutes. BfArM refused to issue licences for these institutes to perform tests for private organisations because, in the eyes of BfArM, drug checking did not fit with their interpretation of what was allowed under Germany’s Narcotics Act. Even when the state of Hesse submitted a proposal for a state-sanctioned drug checking programme, BfArM rejected their request.

Real traction came for Berlin after the 2016 state elections. The newly-formed red-red-green coalition included drug checking in its coalition agreement. With no clear legal route for such a plan, the Senate had to map its own way. Headway came in 2018 in the form of a legal opinion that evaluated the proposed project as compliant with the Narcotics Act. With this opinion as a foundation, the Berlin police, the state prosecutor’s office and the Senate collectively agreed to sanction a state drug checking project – without BfArM’s blessing.

Berlin is still left in the “somewhat unfortunate” position

The authorities and police agreed to not interfere during consultation hours, meaning that people could access without fear of arrest or prosecution. The proposed 2019 start date was delayed by the pandemic, and finally opened in 2023 – an ironic twist, considering the project’s delayed start coincided with the Bundestag amending the Narcotics Act, the very law that inhibited the project in the first place. The amendment passed on June 23, 2023, making explicit the right of states to offer drug checking and resolving any legal ambiguity around the Berlin project. The three drug counselling centres quickly began analysing samples.

Their results have only underscored the need for such a programme. As of the end of May 2024, 51.5% of samples tested this year were either incorrectly declared (e.g. someone was sold mephedrone that is actually ketamine), a dangerously high dose or contaminated with other harmful substances. Last year, that number was 45.7% – meaning almost every second sample since the programme started has carried a warning.

In the meantime, people are being turned away at almost the same rate. According to Deutsche Welle, in 2023 1,286 people attempted to get their drugs checked, but 44% of them – upwards of 550 people – were turned away. “The demand for drug checking is significantly higher than the project’s counselling and analysis capacities,” the programme’s pharmaceutical coordinator told the outlet.

Drug money

What happens next? While drug checking has been included in the last three Senate coalition agreements, there are no future guarantees. The Narcotics Act leaves it up to the discretion of individual states as to whether they wish to provide such a service or not. It’s shaky ground; last year the black-red coalition initially proposed allocating less funds to the project in their draft budget for 2024/25. It was a situation described by one CDU politician as “somewhat unfortunate” and, through a budget reshuffling, rectified.

However, Berlin is still left in the “somewhat unfortunate” position it was before – far more demand than the programme can meet. While we can remain hopeful that increased funding for drug checking becomes a priority for the Senate, at present there’s little public push to increase investment and expand the programme. It is clear that risks are on the rise within the drug scene, and without information and professional support, people are left to blindly experiment with these dangers. For now, it’s important to remember that you can legally test your drugs in the party capital, and that’s a milestone decades in the making.