Lab Testing Anomalous Street Drug Samples in Kensington Philadelphia

Christopher Moraff
7 min readSep 17, 2018

Final (GC/MS Results)

*Samples: May-July 2018

As early as January 2018, as Philadelphia’s Bridge Encampments swelled with displaced IV drug users, I began hearing anecdotal reports, and then witnessing for myself, strange new behavior among the population of homeless heroin users in Kensington, Philadelphia.

Heroin has been sold in this area of Philly for decades; and with the exception of a short outbreak of scopolamine poisonings in 1996, and a spike in fentanyl-related deaths in 2006 (attributed to adulterated heroin traced to the Ricardo Valdez-Torres organization in Toluca, Mexico), the composition of street heroin in North Philadelphia has been relatively consistent (with purity levels averaging around 50–60 percent). This held largely true despite a radical shift in supply chains for the drug that took place in the mid-1990s, when South East Asian heroin from the Golden Triangle (Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar) was replaced almost overnight by heroin produced from poppy grown in Colombia. [*NOTE: I’ve seen reports that Philly heroin purity levels are in the 90 percent range. This is patently false. Federal sources tell me that while heroin that pure has been seized, it’s rare. According to the DEA’s most recent Heroin Domestic Monitor Program (data from 2016) the average purity of heroin in Philadelphia is 64.7 percent. The highest among all participating cities).

The one unique component of Philadelphia’s heroin supply is the addition of the tranquilizer Xylazine, a demand-driven trend exported here from Puerto Rico, where Xylazine abuse is common. Drug users refer to this as “tranq dope” or “sleep cut,” as it produces a sedating effect preferred by some (particularly Latino) users.

Empty Xylazine Bottles, Philadelphia

The closure last August of the Gurney Street injection site known as “El Campamento” — an outdoor, user-constructed injection site hidden behind a mass of foliage along the Conrail train tracks in a Latino area of West Kensington known as to old-timers as “The Box” — caused a massive disruption of the heroin trade. Users (particularly Whites) moved eastward across Kensington Avenue (the historical border between Latino and White Kensington) into unclaimed territory where the street-drug trade had been largely absent. At the same time, the spike in overdose deaths attributed to fentanyl brought the hammer down on many long-established professional drug “sets,” the low hanging fruit, so to speak. This set off a brief war for the spoils, with a number of shootings (most of them non-fatal) occurring on drug blocks located adjacent to the old Gurney Street camp.

West Kensington — “The Badlands”

But most perniciously, the disruption following the closure of “El Campamento” left a market void that dozens of young inexperienced entrepreneurs were only too eager to fill. Almost every day this winter a new stamp would appear, and early morning “sample runs” became a near daily routine for the encampment residents. Unclaimed drug territory was everywhere east of Kensington Ave. And, in at least one case, a crew set up shop briefly on a gentrified street south of Lehigh Ave (and east of Kensington Ave.)— where open air drug dealing has been absent for decades, if it ever existed there at all.

In some cases a corner would open up one morning and be gone within days., or pop up somewhere else with product sold under a different stamp. The significance of this shift is most likely lost on those not familiar with the dynamics of entrenched and professionally run drug markets (particularly those operated and managed by Latinos) where a corners are literally inherited from generation to generation, and stamps can go years without rebranding.

[For additional ethnographic context I recommend these two sources : Pax Narcotica : The Open-Air Drug Markets of Philadelphia Puerto Rican Inner City, and Urban segregation and the US heroin market: A quantitative model of anthropological hypotheses from an inner-city drug market]

Disruption in black markets is extremely dangerous, and I predicted that product variability (potency, composition, “beat bags”) would greatly increase due to the proliferation of these new amateur drug crews. I call this theory “The Freelancer Effect,” and it contradicts the dominant supply-side enforcement assumption that lopping off the head of the big snake (the so-called kingpin) ultimately kills an organization. On the contrary, evidence suggests it just creates many more little snakes/organizations who a.) don’t know what the fuck they’re doing; and b.) have a complete lack of respect for established street codes.

The Testing: I began using immunoassay test strips to ascertain the evolving composition of Philadelphia’s street drugs in early 2017, and to my knowledge am the only journalist using the emerging harm reduction tool to get better insight into the nature of the overdose crisis. At first I tested for the presence of fentanyl and fentanyl analogs alone using BTNX Rapid Response test strips; but I soon added MOP 300 strips to test for morphine derivatives (heroin) and COC 300 strips for cocaine. (I recently began trialing benzodiazepine test strips, which I’ve read vary in effectiveness depending upon what drug is being tested for; so far I have confirmed that they will detect lorazepam (Ativan). And have been searching, unsuccessfully so far, for a test that can detect 8th generation synthetic cannabinoids).

Around January of this year I began witnessing behavior I’d never seen among IV heroin users — unusual reactions that were inconsistent with fentanyl adulteration. Meanwhile the concurrent use of synthetic cannabinoids and heroin was increasing (which struck me as odd, since few heroin users I’ve ever known smoked marijuana).

In June I covered the phenomenon for The Daily Beast, which included reports of drug users receiving what they believed to be the heroin/fentanyl mix common on Philly street corners, but having strong hallucinogenic reactions.

“It made me feel like I was tripping, or on wet [PCP],” was a common description. In one case the dealer himself seemed unaware of any unusual adulterant in his product and reimbursed the customer.

At the time the Philadelphia Department of Health had no information about rising synthetic cannabinoid use among opioid users. Then, a month after my story ran, nearly 200 people were sickened over the course of two days by several brands of heroin. Lab results revealed the presence of 5F-ADB — a powerful synthetic cannabinoid in samples of the drugs.

By this point I’d already been sequestering drug samples I tested that caused unusual reactions in users, or simply looked unusual on visual inspection. In July, after many months of failed negotiations with several labs, I found a reputable lab (teaching hospital) located in the U.S. willing to test them using Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS).

All samples were collected between May and July 2018. A total of ten samples were sent, including K2, heroin and cocaine. All were chosen because of they looked odd, gave users unusual reactions, or provided inconsistent results from my own immunoassay testing.

Index explaining need for additional testing that accompanied the samples

The Results:

Annotated Toxicologist’s Notes: All compounds in italics were detected upon retest in some cases using less dilution and represent a lower amount compared with others in black. These were not reflected in preliminary results. Those are mostly trace. For Sample E we found fentanyl and it seems you had same issue with sample E. I think amount of fentanyl is low in this sample and after dilution we cannot detect it. In all samples the primary compound [not accounting for non-drug cutting agents] is in bold. I listed the analytes from high signal to low. So the first one in each list has a highest signal and the last one has the lowest.”

Author Note: The presence of 6-acetylcodeine, 6-acetylmorphine, 6-Monoacetylmorphine, noscapine, papaverine, morphine & codeine are not independent adulterants but rather markers of the presence of heroin.

SAMPLE B: SOLD AS K2 (synthetic cannabinoid)

Sample — June 2018

GS/MS RESULTS: Cocaine, levamisole, methamphetamine, nicotine, lidocaine, phenacetin, adenosine, Fentanyl, Caffeine, heroin. Toxicologist’s Notes: For the K2 we tried two different extraction methods. We couldn’t find any synthetic cannabinoids.


Sample — May 2018

GS/MS RESULTS: Heroin, 6-acetylcodeine, 6-acetylmorphine, morphine, codeine, noscapine, papaverine, lidocaine, tramadol, fentanyl, butyrylfentanyl, acetylfentanyl, despropionyl fentanyl [AUTHOR NOTE: More commonly called 4-ANPP, the presence of despropionyl fentanyl is used as a signature to identify fentanyl produced illicitly using NPP, commonly known as the Siegfried method] cocaine, ketamine, acetaminophen, nicotine, caffeine


Sample — June 2018

GS/MS RESULTS: Heroin, fentanyl, acetylcodeine, morphine, tramadol, lidocaine, Quinidine, Codeine, 6-Monoacetylmorphine, Diphenhydramine, Acetaminophen, Procaine, Caffeine, Papaverine


An Image of Sample E is not available. This is representative of a standard $5 bag of shooting coke

Cocaine, lidocaine, levamisole 6-Monoacetylmorphine (heroin), Fentanyl, Morphine, Papaverine

CONCLUSION: While these results do not represent a random sampling of street drugs in Philadelphia (they were chosen specifically because they reflected anomalies reported by users or myself) I believe they demonstrate that the disruption of established drug markets through displacing drug user and supplier populations incentivizes the Freelancer Effect and leads to increased experimentation and adulteration by amateur entrepreneurs. The toxicologist’s conclusions regarding the trace amount of fentanyl in Sample E (cocaine) add further support to my own hypothesis that fentanyl-contaminated cocaine is largely the result of cross-contamination rather than intentional adulteration. This report will be updated as new lab results are received.



Christopher Moraff

Christopher Moraff covers the intersection of policing, criminal justice, drug policy and civil liberties. He is co-host of the podcast Narcotica.