Developing a Lab Test for Bath Salt Drugs

A vial of bath salts.

Sam Houston State University received a federal grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to create a test for bath salts for toxicological samples in crime labs.

Bath salts, also known as synthetic cathinones, are a new breed of designer drugs that were legally sold in convenience stores, head shops and on the Internet until being included on the list of illegal substances through an emergency order by the Drug Enforcement Administration in October 2011. These drugs, that are capable of producing powerful hallucinogenic and adrenergic effects, are routinely seized in drug cases around the Houston metropolitan area and throughout the nation.

A technician tests for drugs in biological samples in the lab.
A technician tests for drugs in biological samples in the lab.
“Bath salts are the new breed of designer amph- etamines, and they pose a number of challenges for law enforcement agencies from a public safety and public health standpoint,” said Dr. Kerrigan.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, bath salts also have adverse effects including rapid heart rates which may lead to heart attacks and strokes, chest pains, nosebleeds, sweating, nausea, and vomiting. Those who abuse the substance also report agitation, insomnia, irritability, dizziness, depression, paranoia, delusions, suicidal thoughts, seizures, and panic attacks.

A package of bath salts and powder within.
Bath salts are routinely seized in drug cases in Houston and across the U.S.
According to a 2011 report from the National Drug Intelligence Center, drug users are attracted to bath salts because they can evade most drug tests and, as a result, it may not be detected in impaired driving cases or death investigations.

“Analytical limitations for state and local forensic toxicology laboratories impact criminal and death investigation casework, and these deficiencies can have serious criminal justice consequences,” Dr. Kerrigan said.

While bath salts are easy to detect in seized samples, such as pills, powders and capsules, once they are ingested, they pose a number of challenges in the toxicology lab. The Department of Forensic Science will develop a procedure to detect at least eight of the most common components found in bath salts in biological evidence. These components include mephedrone, flephedrone, methylone , butylone, ethylone, methedrone, MDPV, and naphyrone.

Many toxicology labs use gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC/MS) to identify drugs in biological evidence. The new study will target a wide variety of the new designer drugs using one procedure.

The GC/MS machines used to test drugs in toxicology samples.
The GC/MS machines used to test drugs in toxicology samples.
As part of an earlier NIJ-funded study, Dr. Kerrigan recently completed and published research on a related class of designer amphetamines with students and graduates from the MS Program in Forensic Science. Two articles on the detection of similar drugs were published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology last year. One study identified procedures that could be used to detect the drug in urine samples and the second concluded that crime labs that use commercial immunoassay testing may fail to detect these drugs. Additional publications are pending.

As a former state laboratory director, Kerrigan believes that the collaborative research and close academic-industrial partnerships that exist in the Forensic Science Department are a critical component of the program’s success.

“Many accredited crime labs do not have the time or resources to accommodate research due to their day to day operational pressures and backlogs,” Dr. Kerrigan said. “Collaborative research like this is mutually beneficial. It allows universities to demonstrate industrial relevance through technological developments, and the crime labs to demonstrate wider scientific awareness and access to research resources. It advances forensic science and promotes a forward-thinking profession.”

Member of The Texas State University System