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Drug-checking app alerts users to potentially lethal pills

Helen Whittle
April 11, 2024

Berlin's first drug-checking service launched last year, and demand is high. Now the data is being shared with the KnowDrugs app, which informs users about the latest drug-checking results in Germany and beyond.

Pink skull ecstasy pill close up.
Potentially lethal: Demand for drug-checking services far outstrips testing capacity in BerlinImage: Pond5 Images/IMAGO

"I guess what we have learned is that withholding information about drugs is actually causing harm, because people will take drugs nevertheless," said 35-year-old Philipp Kreicarek, creator of KnowDrugs, an app that provides information about the latest drug-testing results, psychoactive substances and tips on safer use.

Kreicarek studied social work at university and worked as a drugs counselor, focusing on harm reduction in clubs and at parties on the side. At that time, club and festivalgoers received information about potentially dangerous pills at information stands or by checking specific websites.

He realized that many people were simply not aware of certain risks. For example, party drugs such as ecstasy pills have now become more highly concentrated. Sometimes, they are likely to contain up to three or four doses in one pill, or even a different substance entirely. Kreicarek thought that a better way to reach people would be via an app.

"I think those kinds of overdoses can be prevented with honest information," he told DW. "In general, I think knowledge about psychoactive substances allows people to make informed decisions and follow safer use practices which will help reduce harm."

Berliner partygoers are seen in a dimly lit night club
For some partygoers consuming drugs — no matter how risky — is essential to the experienceImage: Sophia Kembowski/dpa/picture alliance

KnowDrugs is free to download, and users aren't required to submit any personal data. It currently has about 80,000 monthly active users, 87% of whom are based in Germany, mostly in Berlin. It's also popular in Budapest, Warsaw, London and Paris.

Kreicarek works closely with addiction counseling centers and the new Drug-Checking Berlin service, which notify him if there is a warning about a specific drug or batch of pills. That information is then issued to app users via push notification.

The dangers of illegal party drugs are well-known: Cocaine, amphetamines, and ecstasy were linked to over 400 deaths in Germany from 2020 to 2022. A further 4,300 deaths have been linked to heroin and morphine use.

Earlier this year, rumors circulated that the highly potent opioid fentanyl had been found in party drugs in Berlin — fears that Drug-Checking Berlin was able to allay. Fentanyl was not found in over 1,000 samples analyzed in the capital, although it has been detected in heroin samples confiscated by police elsewhere in Germany.

Kreicarek would like to see the drug-checking service expanded to include on-site checking in clubs and at festivals. "People who might get drugs inside a club are not being reached at the moment," he said.

Drug checking: Once illegal, now state-sponsored

Drug checking wasn't always this straightforward. Back in 1995, Eve & Rave, an association promoting club and party culture, introduced on-site drug-checking at parties and clubs in Berlin.

Its members were subsequently charged by the public prosecutor's office with possession of illegal drugs. Although none of them were actually convicted, it took until 2016 for Berlin's government, then a coalition of the center-left Social Democrats, Greens and the Left Party, to set its own drug-checking project in motion.

After years of legal wrangling and pressure from experts and campaign groups, Berlin launched its first free and anonymous drug-checking service in June 2023, financed by the state Health Ministry.

Now, every Tuesday, people can take pills, tabs, liquids and powders for checking at three addiction counseling centers. Following a brief consultation, during which consumption habits and safer use practices are discussed, a sample is taken for chemical analysis and the results issued by telephone or in person a few days later.

Currently, around 40 samples a week are submitted at the three centers in Berlin, according to Tibor Harrach, pharmaceutical coordinator of Drug-Checking Berlin. "The demand for drug checking is significantly higher than the project's counseling and analysis capacities," he told DW.

Germany seeks coordinated action against cocaine trafficking

From June to December 2023, 1,286 people requested the drug-checking service but 566 (44%) of them had to be turned away. A total of 1,092 samples were analyzed in 2023, of which 494 (45.2%) were found to contain dangerously high concentrations of psychoactive agents, were contaminated with toxic substances or were falsely declared. In some cases, for example, powder or crystals sold as MDMA, or ecstasy, were found to be ketamine. Both are psychedelics, but their effects can vary.

Drug-checking services lead to a reduction in the amount of drugs consumed and a reduced risk of overdoses, according to a 2021 study by The Loop, a nonprofit in the UK that provides community and event-based drug-checking. The study also found that poor quality or mislabeled substances were more likely to be thrown away or consumed with more caution, and that drug users were less likely to mix substances.

The Drug-Checking service in Berlin is currently being evaluated by an institute at the city's Charite hospital, with its report expected to be made available at the end of 2024.

"It can already be said that drug-checking has reached numerous users who have never had contact with the addiction support system before," said Harrach. "This applies to 84% of users from 2023."

Should all drugs be decriminalized?

Germany recently became the latest EU country to legalize the possession and consumption of cannabis. The new law, which came into effect on April 1, allows adults to grow up to three cannabis plants in their own homes and store up to 50 grams (about 2 ounces) of dried cannabis.

Three small cannabis plants are seen
People in Germany may now legally cultivate up to three cannabis plantsImage: Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto/picture alliance

But many campaigners think that should only be the start. Philine Edbauer, co-founder of the initiative My Brain My Choice (MBMC), believes all drug use and possession should be decriminalized.

Edbauer argues the current state of research has little to do with either the public perception of the dangers of drugs, or what she calls "the fear-mongering of many politicians."

She welcomes apps like KnowDrugs, and believes the drug-checking service in Berlin helps to make recreational drug use safer, while connecting people with health care professionals who can give them potentially life-saving advice.

"That's very valuable," said Edbauer. "To make health services really accessible and reduce the stigma of seeking help or just asking questions."

"The reality is that people do drugs anyway," she added. "Moral ideas are playing such a great role in how to regulate drugs, instead of listening to the scientists or moving away from punishment in the drug trade and toward strategies that really work."

Edited by: Ben Knight

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