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Energy Control
TLC and Other Risk Reduction Approaches
by Sylvia Thyssen and Jon Hanna
Nov 2008
Citation:   Thyssen S, Hanna J. "Energy Control: TLC and Other Risk Reduction Approaches" Erowid Extracts. Nov 2008;15:16-17.
A unique service at the 2008 Boom Festival in Portugal was the thin layer chromatography (TLC) conducted on site. Erowid interviewed three key members of the Spanish group Energy Control that provided this drug testing service, to ask them about their work.
Preparing TLC plates, Photo by Jon Hanna
Evening at the Boom Festival: A woman wonders whether the tablet in her hand really contains MDMA. At the Energy Control booth she speaks with a volunteer who photographs the tablet, then obtains a tiny scraping, assigns it a unique number, records what the woman thinks it might be. The sample is turned over to a three-person team sequestered in a tent equipped with dozens of drug reference standards, pipettes, solvent, an ultraviolet light-box, gloves, and a laptop. The woman is instructed to come back in about an hour to obtain the results of the test...

Over the course of the week, 303 drug samples were analyzed for their probable contents. The "cocaine" was in most cases fake or adulterated. The "2C-B" was usually 2C-B, but sometimes it was MDMA. The "speed" was rarely an amphetamine compound at all. And when misidentified tablets were brought in more than once, such as the "MDMA" tablets that contained mCPP or the "mescaline" microdots that contained LSD, Energy Control projected their images onto a screen along with information relating what they actually contained. The primary method used for their analysis was thin layer chromatography (TLC).

TLC is a low-cost, qualitative analysis method that involves using small specially prepared "plates" (usually plastic or glass), that are coated on one side with a very thin layer of sorbent (such as solid silica gel). The sample to be analyzed is dissolved in a solvent or solvent blend, a small spot is placed near the lower edge of the plate, and the bottom of the plate is set in unadulterated solvent. Chemicals are wicked up the plate via capillary action causing spots of chemicals to creep slowly upward. Different chemicals move at different rates. If a sample contains multiple chemicals, it will separate into multiple spots as it moves. After putting a microliter of a known reference standard (of say LSD), next to a microliter of a sample (of say a microdot), the plate is checked in around 20-90 minutes to compare the two spots by color, size, and distance traveled. If the sample matches the reference standard, the sample has likely been identified. In some cases a developing reagent, UV light, and/or heating of the plate is required to make the spot(s) visible.

TLC plate, Photo by Zariat
In order to identify chemicals using thin layer chromotography a pure reference standard must be available for each chemical, though the amount of the reference chemical used for each test is tiny. Energy Control staff members explained that a one-milligram standard (of MDMA for example) from a chemical supply company can be used for hundreds of tests, as only a microliter containing one to four micrograms is required for each test. To analyze an unknown sample, only about three micrograms of a chemical needs to be present.

A few conditions must be met for Energy Control to run TLC testing at an event: a relatively isolated and quiet space conducive to concentration, enough volunteers, a sufficient power supply, and the appropriate ambient temperature so that the testing procedure works properly (during hot days, evaporation can be a problem; if it gets too cool, the methanol system can become saturated with water from the atmosphere).

Move Over Marquis
Energy Control was founded in 1997 by Josep Rovira, a social worker at a Barcelona drug treatment center. Since those early days, the group has provided Marquis reagent colorimetric drug testing at parties as part of its broader risk reduction mission. The Marquis test is a very limited method that can not positively identify a chemical, but is sufficient for ruling out the presence of some substances. If the test comes up negative, it's near-certain that none of the targeted substances are present in the sample. However, a positive result only indicates that a target substance might be present, since dyes and other chemicals such as opiates, LSD, and MDMA can all cause similar color changes. Another limitation of using the Marquis reagent for drug testing is that unscrupulous dealers have responded to such tests by producing Ecstasy tablets that contain very small amounts of MDMA-enough to present a positive test result but not enough to produce the desired psychoactive effects.

After observing the Basque risk reduction group Ai Laket!! ( doing thin layer chromatography in a van outside a party, Energy Control staff members Mireia Ventura and Iván Fornís started their organization's TLC program in 2005. Ventura, a pharmacy PhD student, and Fornís, a biologist, quickly became engrossed in mobilizing the project. Ventura explains: "I thought it would be great to combine my technical background with drug risk reduction, and that TLC analysis results could help professionals respond appropriately to the shifting conditions surrounding illicit drug use." Ventura and Fornís formed an alliance with a drug analysis laboratory in Barcelona, where Fornís learned the TLC process and adapted it to Energy Control's needs. The lab provides them with the reference standards, and it can run GC/MS on samples selected for further scrutiny and quantification. In return, Energy Control shares the TLC data that they collect with the laboratory. Although a chemistry background is not required to conduct TLC, their team is comprised of two chemists, two lab technicians, two pharmacists, and a computer technician.

The term "risk reduction" (Spanish: reducción de riesgos; French: réduction des risques; Portuguese: redução de riscos), is preferred over "harm reduction" in some European countries.
Energy Control started out by distributing information directly to users at parties. As their work grew, they developed two-day trainings for primary care physicians about emerging patterns of drug use. In their effort to propagate risk reduction information, they began providing alcohol and tobacco education in secondary schools, including programs for teachers and parents. They also survey users by email, both for internal use and to collect data for public health efforts.

Public Perception
Spain is considered to have a progressive drug policy among European countries, but of course Energy Control's work has its detractors. "Many times, reporters on television and in the papers suggest that we are promoting drug use", Nuria Calzada, the group's coordinator, remarks. "It's the same people who think that if you give a condom to a young person, you are inciting them to have sex. So if you give away clean straws for safer sniffing, you are inciting them to sniff drugs. But Energy Control has the approval of educators, social workers, health care workers, psychiatrists, and the young people themselves. A lot of professionals have a good impression of Energy Control, and see us as experts on new drugs and new contexts for drug use. But not everyone; it's different in different provinces." Because of their reputation for doing good work, Calzada explains, "We are funded by Spain's Ministry of Health, with smaller grants from the governments of Catalonia, Andalusia, Ibiza, Majorca, and Madrid."

EC's Nuria Calzada, Mireia Ventura, and Iván Fornís,
Photo by Jon Hanna
Meeting Various Clients' Needs
Although Energy Control has done TLC at three events in 2008, they prefer to conduct testing at their Barcelona office, where they can collect and analyze samples before, rather than during, parties. In an office setting their staff has plenty of time to speak with users and impart information in a comfortable environment. Calzada, who is a psychologist, points out that their testing service is useful for parents, whom they are increasingly seeing in their office. "Parents who have found a substance in their child's room may bring it in for testing and to ask about its effects." Specific visiting hours have been established for concerned parents.

Making a Difference
In promoting risk reduction over the last decade, Energy Control's staff and volunteers have trained people throughout Spain. They are developing a protocol for their TLC process with the dream of training others in the procedure and spreading the service internationally, so it can be made available at centers and festivals worldwide.

A team conducting TLC creates a feedback loop that can transform the sociology of an event. In a context where street drug users lack discernment about what they put in their bodies, shedding light into the black box of illegal substances can be revelatory for people unaccustomed to knowing the identity of the drugs they obtain on the underground market. Since its inception, Energy Control has noticed a rise in users' consciousness about the risks of illicit substances, at least in Barcelona. By making testing available, the group is helping to foster the development of critical thinking about consumption. "Providing non-judgmental, fact-based risk reduction services builds trust", Ventura reflects, "And it is important for young people to take the first step, to ask questions and obtain more information."