"Our goal is to prevent drug-related deaths and emergencies, and to empower people to make informed decisions about their drug use."

Birti Ishar via Unsplash

Drug checking is a Harm Reduction approach aimed at reducing drug-related harm and fatalities by providing information about the content and quality of illicit substances. While drug checking is still uncommon in the Global South, there is growing recognition of its importance as a Harm Reduction strategy. The GPDPD wanted to learn more about drug checking from an expert. Hence, we sat down with Dominique Schori, the manager of the Drug Information Center (DIZ) Zürich to get further insight into how drug checking works, its impact on the lives of drug users, and how it fits into a larger policy landscape. The DIZ Zürich—and Switzerland more broadly—have a rich history of successful Harm Reduction provision and have been drug policy pioneers in many aspects for the entire European continent. Its drug checking service aimed at recreational users, called Saferparty.ch, plays a key role in ensuring the safety of drug users in Zürich. In this interview, Dominique Schori provides us not only key insights into how drug checking at the DIZ/Saferparty.ch functions, but also answers the question: What does the future of drug checking look like?

GPDPD: Thank you, Dominique Schori, for making the time to talk with us! First, I’d like to ask a bit more about the organisation. What is the role of the drug checking center?


Dominique Schori: The main organisation is the Drogeninformationszentrum or Drug Information Center (DIZ); Saferparty.ch is the component aimed at parties and the internet. It is actually part of the governmental body, rather than the usual NGO-model; it’s a service for recreational users direct from the city of Zurich.


This also puts us in a privileged position from the perspective of financing, city support, and not having to negotiate with the city government like NGOs have to. It also facilitates exchange with the police because we share the same employer – the city of Zurich.


City-funded drug checking services are certainly not the norm. How did this—and the drug checking service more broadly – come about?


It’s actually a question of history. Zurich had a huge open drug scene in the 1990s, and hence the pressure to address the issue was higher than in other cities. The response started with classical outreach and street work, including more classical harm reduction methods, like syringe exchange, Medication-Assisted-Therapy (MAT), and safe consumption rooms.


It was this approach of the city and community taking responsibility. The really open drug-consuming space was known as the “Needle Park” or later “Letten”; the latter was also an old train station. Our drug checking center is actually only 100 meters away from the original space.


To be clear, the drug checking is only one part of a larger service: we are a Harm Reduction organisation for recreational users but also a social counseling center. Everyone who’s using drugs who may have associated social issues—related to their finances, work, or social issues, for example – can receive counseling.


We also have outreach projects and are present in public spaces. Our target group is mainly young, recreational users, and we aim to attract them to our regular services. Altogether, we have three core services then: drug checking, counseling services, outreach services.


In addition, we have various smaller services focusing on specific groups or scenes, such as those engaging in “chemsex”, or football fans, whose consumption patterns have changed in the last 20 years away from alcohol, tobacco, and weed, towards more stimulant usage like cocaine and amphetamines.  In addition, we conduct numerous workshops with young people, consumers and professionals.


Who is the main target group for your services and how do you reach them?


The "Harm Reduction for Illegal Substances" department focuses on specific risks and target groups associated with illegal substance consumption. Consumption rooms are mainly for individuals with substance use disorder who are marginalised, living on the streets, and visible. However, the department's drug checking services target recreational users, as well as those with problematic or risky use. The age range for their services is 13-78 years old, with younger people being the predominant users.


The term "hard to reach" groups is misleading, as it is usually the services that are difficult to reach, rather than the groups themselves. The department aims to be present where these populations are and actively engage with them. For instance, they collaborate with online marketplaces and drug vendors to report trends and substances, participate in darknet forums where users ask questions, and motivate vendors to publish links to safer use information, such as the saferparty.ch resources, on their platform. This approach allows them to go where the substance use happens and be accessible to the users – to their “Lebenswelt” (to meet them where they are).


So, the department’s focus is less on prospective users and more on current users; prospective users are mainly the responsibility of the addiction prevention center.


In your view, what are the main benefits of drug checking? Are there any we might not expect?


At a very early stage we get contact with people who do not have problematic substance use or may not be aware of what problematic use looks like. While going to an addiction center can be intimidating, drug checking offers a neutral space where individuals do not feel sick or judged. This provides them with an opportunity to reflect on their own substance use: “Do I feel good about what I’m doing? What possibilities do I have to change this?” This approach is referred to as an "acceptance-oriented approach."


It's really amazing how honest people can be about their substance use when given a safe and appropriate space. The presence of drugs on the table can help to break the ice and facilitate open communication.


The service also aims to empower individuals and encourage them to take responsibility for their decisions. Knowing the contents of the drug sample and having access to safer use information enables individuals to make informed decisions about their substance use. The service provides individuals with information about the contents of the drug sample and offers guidance on how to use it more safely, leaving the decision of what to do with that information up to the individual. In addition, drug checking provides an opportunity for deeper insight into the realities of the illicit drug market and can help identify potentially dangerous trends at an early stage.


You’ve brought up the role of ‘autonomy’ a few times now. What exactly is the role of autonomy in drug checking?


On a social level, it’s about destigmatising the label of "drug user" and correct the false conceptions about who is a “drug user” in the general population. By doing so, it gives people the confidence to speak more openly about their substance use. The service also aims to shift the balance of power from dealers and sources to the users themselves, giving them more agency and control over their substance use.


However, it should be noted that possession and use of substances is still illegal in Switzerland, and there is currently no move towards decriminalisation. Hence, it’s a bit of a paradoxical situation where the state empowers individuals to be self-responsible, but they can technically still face punishment from the police for drug use. Nevertheless, the existence of our service represents Switzerland’s pragmatic approach to reducing the harm caused by substance use.


Let’s imagine that I’m somebody who would like to get their drugs tested: can you walk me through what this process looks like?


Since the pandemic, the drug checking service requires individuals to make an appointment the day before and receive a specific time slot. They are given a password to remember and receive information on how to prepare their drug sample (e.g., one blotter, how many milligrams, how much of shrooms, etc.) to provide during the appointment.


On the day of their appointment, they receive face-to-face counseling, which is tailored to their specific questions and concerns; for example, is their use becoming more frequent? Are they preparing for a ‘trip’? The counseling takes about 20 minutes, after which the individual receives a small card with a sample number and password. They can ask for the results within a couple of days by email, phone, or in person. The results are always published by Friday.


The service is currently working towards digitalization to reduce barriers, especially for young people. All information is kept completely anonymous (no name or address), but statistics such as age, gender, and source are collected. The goal is to make the entire process easier and more accessible by allowing individuals to do everything online – again, reducing barriers and making the services themselves easy to reach.


Are there legal restrictions on the ‘handling’ of drugs in Switzerland? In other countries, this has made drug checking services difficult, or even outright illegal.


The interpretation of the laws on 'handling' drugs are not as strict in Switzerland as they are in other countries, due to a legal decision that defines 'possession' as the will to possess. This means that handing drugs over to a lab, and the lab completing the drug testing, does not count as possession. The Drug Information Center has a special permission from the Federal Office of Public Health (FoPH) for their work.


What do you see as the future of drug checking?


The core of drug checking is the counseling. There’s always going to be people who have questions, concerns, and issues with drug use – even with tobacco and alcohol, despite the fact that they’re when legal, it’s not as if all problems are resolved. There will always be a need for counseling – ‘acceptance-oriented counseling’  – and low threshold services.


Just recently, Switzerland has allowed communities (cities) to conduct pilot trials for cannabis use. Starting this summer, around 2000 people in Zurich will be able to use cannabis and have their health outcomes monitored. As part of this, the DIZ is now an official cannabis ‘vendor’ in addition to pharmacies and social clubs.


If you wanted me to take away one thing from this interview, what would it be?


Do not think about ‘hard-to-reach’ populations, think about ‘hard to reach’ services. This is especially true regarding drug checking and recreational users: if you really integrate this attitude into your work and institution, this is where users will have the most benefit.


Drug checking services have been available in some developed countries for years – like in Switzerland, Spain, United Kingdom or in Germany. The federal government has expressed its commitment to the approach of drug checking in its 2021 coalition agreement. In the countries of the Global South, the issue is gaining importance, but services are severely limited.


The current state of drug checking in developing countries varies widely depending on the specific country and region. In most places, there are no formal drug checking services, and people who use drugs have little access to information about the content and purity of substances. In other countries, non-governmental organisations and community groups have established their own drug checking programs, often relying on portable drug analysis tools that can be operated in the field.


Latin American countries are so far leading the way. As it stands, drug checking services are available in parts of Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay and Mexico, all countries in which the use of amphetamine-type substances has increased over the last decade. For example in Colombia, civil society organisations such as Acción Técnica Social seek to generate and disseminate information on psychoactive substances for risk and Harm Reduction, and have a system for instant analysis of pills and powders at their booths at parties and festivals.


One challenge to implementing drug checking programs in developing countries is a lack of resources and infrastructure, which can make it difficult to acquire and maintain the necessary equipment and supplies. Another challenge is legal barriers, as drug possession and consumption are often criminalised, making it difficult for drug checking services to operate openly and legally.


While drug checking is still relatively uncommon in developing countries, there is growing recognition of its importance as a Harm Reduction strategy. With changing patterns of drug use on many countries in the Global South – with an increasing use of stimulants and synthetic drugs – drug checking becomes more relevant. As resources and infrastructure may improve, and legal barriers are overcome, it is likely that drug checking services will become more widely available in developing countries in the coming years.