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Toots, tastes and tester shots: user accounts of drug sampling methods for gauging heroin potency


BACKGROUND:Internationally, overdose is the primary cause of death among people injecting drugs. However, since 2001, heroin-related overdose deaths in the United States (US) have risen sixfold, paralleled by a rise in the death rate attributed to synthetic opioids, particularly the fentanyls. This paper considers the adaptations some US heroin injectors are making to protect themselves from these risks. METHODS:Between 2015 and 2016, a team of ethnographers collected data through semi-structured interviews and observation captured in field notes and video recording of heroin preparation/consumption. Ninety-one current heroin injectors were interviewed (Baltimore, n = 22; Chicago, n = 24; Massachusetts and New Hampshire, n = 36; San Francisco, n = 9). Experience injecting heroin ranged from < 1-47 years. Eight participants, who were exclusively heroin snorters, were also interviewed. Data were analyzed thematically. RESULTS:Across the study sites, multiple methods of sampling "heroin" were identified, sometimes used in combination, ranging from non-injecting routes (snorting, smoking or tasting a small amount prior to injection) to injecting a partial dose and waiting. Partial injection took different forms: a "slow shot" where the user injected a portion of the solution in the syringe, keeping the needle in the injection site, and continuing or withdrawing the syringe or a "tester shot" where the solution was divided into separate injections. Other techniques included getting feedback from others using heroin of the same batch or observing those with higher tolerance injecting heroin from the same batch before judging how much to inject themselves. Although a minority of those interviewed described using these drug sampling techniques, there is clearly receptivity among some users to protecting themselves by using a variety of methods. CONCLUSIONS:The use of drug sampling as a means of preventing an overdose from injection drug use reduces the quantity absorbed at any one time allowing users to monitor drug strength and titrate their dose accordingly. Given the highly unpredictable potency of the drugs currently being sold as heroin in the US, universal precautions should be adopted more widely. Further research is needed into facilitators and barriers to the uptake of these drug sampling methods.

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