Ecstasy testing kits, as well as tests for a range of other drugs (e.g., cocaine, ketamine and LSD) are widely available on-line and are used by many to access information about what is contained in the drugs they have purchased.
The original test made available to the public was called the EZ Test kit - a Marquis Reagent test, or simple spot-test, used to identify a range of substances that may be present in an ecstasy pill. Different colour reactions are produced when a liquid (the reagent) comes into contact with different compounds. The person testing the pill drops some of the EZ Test liquid onto a small scraping of the pill or powder. A pill which contains MDMA will turn dark blue, purple or black, while a 2CB-like substance will turn yellow or green. Different substances, different colours. These colours are then compared to a chart provided with the kit to give an indication of what may be contained in the pill.
Over the years more sophisticated tests have been made available, with users now being able to potentially identify a greater number of substances, as well as differentiate between drugs like MDMA, MDA and MDE - something that wasn't able to be done in the past.
So what are these tests actually telling the user? Do they provide us with useful information that is able to determine a certain degree of safety?
Firstly it is important to be aware that an ecstasy tablet rarely contains only one substance. Often one tablet can contain many different substances, some of which are not even identifiable to the highly skilled analysts who work in the government laboratories, let alone simple tests such as these. In the past, these tests were only able to identify the presence of one substance. Even though this has now changed and there are kits available that can provide additional information based on further testing this does not mean that the user has all the information about what may be contained in the pill, tablet or powder. As DanceSafe (an American organization that promotes health and safety within the dance community) says about the reagents they use - they "can only determine the presence, not the quantity or purity, of a particular substance." They also add that the darker colour reactions may "override reactions to other substances also in the pill".
Unfortunately some people using these kits, identify MDMA and then incorrectly assume that this means the tablet is safe. There are two problems with this. Firstly, MDMA is not a safe drug – there are risks associated with its use, primarily around dehydration and overheating, but it can also lead to fatal overdose in some cases. It's rare, but it can happen. Secondly, there may be other substances that were not even identified by the kit that are more harmful than MDMA.
It is important to remember that ecstasy testing kits, or any other drug testing kits for that matter, provide some information about what is in the drug you are taking, not everything ... and even if you did know exactly what was in the pill or powder there is no guarantee of how you are going to react once you've taken it. Of course, having more information about the contents of an illegal drug is useful, especially if a particularly dangerous substance such as PMA is identified, but don't be fooled – there are no guarantees and no short-cuts when it comes to drug use. No drug is 100% safe, regardless of whether you know what is in it or not!