Just Check It!

Toxicology comes to rave parties in Vienna

By John Bohannon

It's just past midnight and a Vienna rave is at full-throttle, packed with sweaty dancers pulsing to an electronic beat. Off to the side, visible through the flickering lights, a long queue snakes out from a covered booth. The ravers in line are all carrying illegal drugs. One by one, they enter the booth, take out one of their pills, and scratch it on a tiny piece of sandpaper. A scientist behind the counter pops the sandpaper back into a glass vial, whispers a number in the person's ear, and disappears. About twenty minutes later, the scientist posts a card on a board with the number and the pill's full chemical contents.

Within stumbling distance of the dance floor at massive rave parties in Vienna, drug-users can drop by a "Check It!" booth. In return for a tiny sample of their drugs, visitors receive a free and anonymous chemical analysis. The hope is that better informed drug consumers those who know the true concentration of their drugs and whether they are spiked with other substances will be safer drug consumers.

The idea for the Check It! program was born in the late 1990s, when city officials began wringing their hands over raves at which as many as 10,000 people would gather to take drugs and dance to throbbing techno music. "The classical methods of drug prevention don't work at all for these people," says Alexander Eggerth, a social psychologist who helps run Check It! Unlike heroin or cocaine abusers who voluntarily turn to social services for help, he says, "ravers don't consider themselves drug users at all," even when popping pills regularly. So rather than trying to scare ravers into seeking treatment, "we bring health care to them."

The 18 members of the Check It! team arrive at raves casually dressed but highly trained as toxicologists, chemists, psychologists, or social workers, as they set up their lab and scope out the venue before the party starts. The main piece of kit is a pair of Bio-Rad HPLC units that can detect more than 1,000 psychoactive compounds from LSD to the synthetic amphetamine derivative MDMA, known commonly as X or Ecstasy in a sample within 15 minutes. "It's been a learn-by-doing experience," says Rainer Schmid, a toxicologist at the University of Vienna who founded Check It! "The rush starts at 11 p.m. and the environment becomes extremely stressful." Schmid says it's harder on him, "because I'm 56 years old, after all," but his young graduate students are a "self-selecting" group. "They just keep right on working incredibly hard, right through the night."

In many cases, ravers are surprised to find what they're holding. About 90% of the pills so far tested have been Ecstasy, and about 10% of these are either diluted with other drugs such as caffeine and cocaine, or contain no MDMA at all. The most serious cases so far involve the amphetamine PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine), a related compound with more intense side effects, including vomiting and soaring body temperatures that can be fatal. When that is discovered, says Eggerth, "the DJ turns the music down and we make an announcement for people to avoid pills with that particular color and logo, and we bring those who have taken it immediately to the hospital."

Even if it is unadulterated, Ecstasy pills often contain as much as five times the typical dose. With the test results in hand, ravers subdivide their pills accordingly. "But the main purpose of the testing is to help us make contact with this population," says Eggerth. For every pill tested, the Check It! team conducts about five counseling or information sessions with ravers. "That's where we're doing the most good."

Of course, the service is also handy for dealers who want to promote their pills on the basis of externally vetted quality, a practice that can be abetted by Check It!'s uneasy truce with the Vienna police department, in which no one will be arrested for drug possession in the booth's immediate vicinity. "In only a couple of cases we've noticed people dealing in front of the booth, and we've asked them to go away," says Eggerth.

Beyond the two full-time and two half-time salaries of the core team, each of the six to eight raves serviced per year costs 6,500 EUR, and although some politicians have grumbled, the annual budget of the program, from 100,000 to 500,000 EUR per year, continues to flow from the city and the Austrian Ministry of Health. "They know that this is good public health for nearly nothing," says Schmid. Similar programs have sprouted up in Spain, France, and Switzerland.

Schmid says he has never been tempted to get to know the drugs beyond their chemical structures. "Immersed in the rave scene, I can certainly imagine how it might feel," says Schmid, "but no, I don't need to do that experiment."