Detecting "Bath Salt" Designer Drugs

Composite picture of bath salts and lines of cocaine on a mirror.

In October 2011 the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the Forensic Science Foundation (FSF) funded a capstone project proposal in the Master of Forensic Science Program to investigate the designer drugs known as “Bath Salts” (beta-keto-amphetamines or BKAs).

Designer drugs have posed a challenge for law enforcement and forensic scientists for decades, but more recently the proliferation of analogs has overwhelmed the scientific community, in large part due to the internet. The majority of BKA designer drugs are derived from cathinone, the active ingredient of Khat (Catha edulis), a plant native to Africa and the Middle East. Synthesis of these drugs is readily accomplished by clandestine chemists, making it an appealing drug for the designer drugs market.

The study will specifically address a number of central nervous system stimulants that are capable of producing powerful and unpredictable adrenergic and hallucinogenic effects. Many of these drugs were considered “legal highs” until the Drug Enforcement Administration placed several of them in Schedule I of the Federal Controlled Substance Act in an emergency scheduling action earlier this year. These drugs were available locally in gas stations, head shops and online until September 1 of this year, when The State of Texas enacted legislation to ban these substances. At least 24 other states have outlawed them, or have legislation pending due to intense media interest and publicity.

In the proposed study, at least six of the most popular “bath salt” drugs will be investigated in biological samples. These include mephedrone, methylone, ethylone, butylone, MDPV and naphyrone. Mephedrone is one of the most common BKAs. It has a reputation of having similar but superior effects to MDMA (3,4 -methylenedioxymethamphetamine or Ecstasy). Street names for mephedrone include MCAT, meow meow, MMC hammer, 4 MMC, bubbles, meph, rush, drone and plant feeder. Mephedrone and the related BKAs are still relatively new, so few clinical, pharmacological or toxicological studies have been reported.

These drugs are easily identified in seized drug materials. The SHSU Regional Crime Laboratory (RCL) operated by the Criminal Justice Center routinely receives items of evidence containing these drugs. Detection in toxicological (biological) evidence is far more challenging. Toxicologists are struggling to develop methodology to detect these drugs (and their metabolites) in biological specimens. Even less is understood with respect to the interpretation of results, and this has real consequences in terms of criminal casework and death investigation.

In order for these drugs to be studied and understood, analytical methodology will be developed for routine use. In the proposed study, solid phase extraction (SPE) will be used to isolate the beta-keto amphetamines from biological matrices. Chromatographic and spectroscopic methods will be developed for instrumental analysis of the biological extracts. Chemical derivatization will be used to develop extracts that are amenable to common instrumental techniques that are used in a crime laboratory, such as gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS).

The research will be conducted by MSFS student Kayla Ellefsen from Toronto, Canada and Dr. Sarah Kerrigan. Due to the scheduling status of some of these drugs, much of the research must be conducted at the Regional Crime Laboratory in The Woodlands. The proposed study is an example of the MSFS student capstone experience, whereby students must successfully complete an intensive one-year research project with a faculty member. During the final phase of the study, the optimized procedure will be validated for use in actual casework at the Regional Crime Laboratory. This NIJ/FSF funded research highlights not only the relevance of student research in the field of forensic science, but also the potential for important collaborations between the MSFS Program and the RCL.

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