How do we understand the value of drug checking as a component of harm reduction services? A qualitative exploration of client and provider perspectives

Harm Reduct J. 2024 May 11;21(1):92. doi: 10.1186/s12954-024-01014-w.


Background: Mortality related to opioid overdose in the U.S. has risen sharply in the past decade. In California, opioid overdose death rates more than tripled from 2018 to 2021, and deaths from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl increased more than seven times in those three years alone. Heightened attention to this crisis has attracted funding and programming opportunities for prevention and harm reduction interventions. Drug checking services offer people who use drugs the opportunity to test the chemical content of their own supply, but are not widely used in North America. We report on qualitative data from providers and clients of harm reduction and drug checking services, to explore how these services are used, experienced, and considered.

Methods: We conducted in-depth semi-structured key informant interviews across two samples of drug checking stakeholders: "clients" (individuals who use drugs and receive harm reduction services) and "providers" (subject matter experts and those providing clinical and harm reduction services to people who use drugs). Provider interviews were conducted via Zoom from June-November, 2022. Client interviews were conducted in person in San Francisco over a one-week period in November 2022. Data were analyzed following the tenets of thematic analysis.

Results: We found that the value of drug checking includes but extends well beyond overdose prevention. Participants discussed ways that drug checking can fill a regulatory vacuum, serve as a tool of informal market regulation at the community level, and empower public health surveillance systems and clinical response. We present our findings within three key themes: (1) the role of drug checking in overdose prevention; (2) benefits to the overall agency, health, and wellbeing of people who use drugs; and (3) impacts of drug checking services at the community and systems levels.

Conclusion: This study contributes to growing evidence of the effectiveness of drug checking services in mitigating risks associated with substance use, including overdose, through enabling people who use and sell drugs to test their own supply. It further contributes to discussions around the utility of drug checking and harm reduction, in order to inform legislation and funding allocation.

Keywords: Drug checking; Fentanyl; Harm reduction; North america; Opioid; Overdose; Qualitative; Substance use.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Drug Overdose / prevention & control
  • Drug Users
  • Female
  • Harm Reduction*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Opiate Overdose / prevention & control
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / prevention & control
  • Qualitative Research
  • San Francisco