Imagine going on a night out with friends, planning to share some “ecstasy” pills you bought locally. What if you first wanted to know the quality and purity of your drugs, but didn’t have the means to check? And what if you wanted to find local harm reduction organizations, information and services that could help keep your drug use safer?
The developers behind TripApp sought to provide some answers.
The free app—which launched this month and is so far available in Spain, Italy and Germany—shares real-time data from the Trans-European Drug Information Project (TEDI), an international illicit drug checking network. It also collects data from consumers who check their own drugs with reagent kits or test strips. It constantly updates its data in order to alert consumers when adulterated or high-risk drug batches are detected in their location.
“We wanted the people to be the primary beneficiaries of this data.”
“We realized that in discussions about drug use, there’s a lot of talk about monitoring and controlling people who use drugs, but when do we ever consider talking to them?” Florian Scheibein, deputy director of Help Not Harm and one of the app’s founders, told Filter. “People who use drugs and their communities are often excluded from having data about the quality of their drugs, that’s normally collected by governments and academic institutions. We instead wanted the people to be the primary beneficiaries of this data.”
Speed of information is key. “In the traditional drug alert systems it often took months between samples being collected by the police, then tested, results sent to the Ministry of Health or other relevant government agency, and then disseminated to the general public and partners in other countries,” said Jan Stola, executive director of Youth Organisations for Drug Action and another of the app’s founders. “TripApp does that in a few hours.”
People who download the app will also be connected with over 1,200 harm reduction providers in 15 countries, including syringe programs, HIV and STI testing, and safe consumption spaces. About 9,000 people in the European Union die of overdose each year, according to the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Abuse.
The TripApp team plans to roll it out in more countries. It is currently available for free from Google, but not yet from Apple. Part of the challenge of expanding to other countries is that reliable information and mapping of local harm reduction providers is required; this is time-consuming to collect, even with the assistance of harm reduction organizations and government agencies.
As it expands, TripApp’s developers also want to improve the self-reported drug checking system. Scheibein explained that in order for this feature to be useful, people testing their own drugs need to write their reports as objectively as possible. The reports need to be translatable to users speaking 15 different languages. And crucially, user-submitted reports are not permitted to encourage or facilitate sales of drugs.
Although TripApp is not yet available in the US, I asked Yarelix Estrada, a harm reduction expert and researcher in New York City*, for her thoughts about its value.
“This application could be really effective for people in the nightlife and party scenes,” she told Filter. “There is no easy or centralized way for drug checking organizations to aggregate and distribute their data. There’s so much good drug checking work being done, and so many urgent and unique needs that different drug-using communities have, that could be connected together.”
Estrada noted that self-reported drug tests may be susceptible to human error, if people incorrectly test their own drugs. People should also be aware that reagent testing kits only test for the presence of drugs, she added, not the amount or purity. And of course marginalized people who lack access to smartphones or internet can’t be reached in this way.
While TripApp is the most comprehensive mobile application of its kind to date, it is not the first. The KnowDrugs app, launched in 2016, aggregates MDMA or “ecstasy” drug checking and testing information provided by local harm reduction organizations. It is used by “people from almost every country in the world,” according to its website, and is available from Apple and Google. Unlike TripApp, it does not source user-provided data.
Meanwhile, the similarly-named but functionally-different TripSit app provides people with comprehensive information about different drugs—such as typical dosage amounts, psychoactive effects and risks, and interactions between drugs. The app, which is available from Google, is updated regularly with scientific and academic data, but does not provide any localized drug checking information.
Other fascinating harm reduction apps include Remote Egg Timer (no longer available) and Second Chance (under development). Remote Egg Timer allowed people to set a timer that would automatically text an emergency contact for help if they didn’t press a stop button—presumably if they were unresponsive following overdose.
Second Chance converts a smartphone into a short-range sonar system that detects overdose based on changes in heartbeat or pulse. If the user doesn’t respond the app sends an emergency message to family members or first responders.
And the simplest, but most human, app of this kind is Harmredux, which is almost like an “Uber” for supervised drug consumption. Developed by a substance use counselor from Evanston, Illinois, Harmredux allows people to contact harm reduction volunteers by phone or text. They can arrange to meet with the person using drugs, monitor them for overdose or other negative side effects, and intervene if necessary with naloxone or by calling 911. The app is available from both Apple and Google.
The usefulness of any of these apps, Estrada cautioned, additionally depends on a critical factor: digital privacy. “If the technology is not using location services and collecting users’ personal data, that’s very important,” she said. “People using drugs are already marginalized and possibly breaking the law, so app developers interested in this issue have to make sure they’re doing this work just to help them—and not to take their information.”
*Estrada requested that her employer not be named.