Despite being outlawed in 2012 in the U.S., the synthetic drugs known as "bath salts"—which really aren't meant for your daily bath—are still readily available in some retail shops, on the Internet and on the streets. To help law enforcement, scientists are developing a novel method that could be the basis for the first portable, on-site testing device for identifying the drugs. They report their advance in the ACS journal Analytical Chemistry.
Craig E. Banks, in collaboration with Oliver Sutcliffe, notes that the high-inducing substances in bath salts, which are synthetic cathinones that also go by "plant food," "glass cleaner" and a number of other innocuous-sounding names, are derived from a stimulant in a plant called khat. The plant is found on the Arabian peninsula and East Africa. The drugs' effects are similar to those of amphetamines. Users reportedly feel an initial sense of euphoria, but this is followed by unpredictable and potentially dangerous effects, including seizures and hallucinations. Since bath salts first appeared in Europe and the U.S. more than four years ago, alarming reports emerged of users becoming violent. Tens of thousands of emergency room visits and several deaths have been attributed to the substances. Scientists have been working successfully on different techniques to identify the synthetic drugs, but the methods aren't portable. One group turned to an electrochemical approach, which can be adapted for in-the-field use, but their technique involved toxic mercury as the electrode. Banks' team wanted to find a better, safer way to perform bath salts "fingerprinting."
Using more environmentally friendly, mercury-free electrodes, the researchers developed a low-cost, disposable and rapid platform that could someday be used in a handheld sensor for detecting bath salts. They validated their technique using samples that were obtained from Internet vendors. The accuracy of their results matched that of established methods.
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More information: Forensic Electrochemistry Applied to the Sensing of New Psychoactive Substances: Electroanalytical Sensing of Synthetic Cathinones and Analytical Validation in the Quantification of Seized Street Samples Anal. Chem., Article ASAP. DOI: 10.1021/ac502991g
The electrochemical sensing of new psychoactive substance(s) (NPSs), synthetic cathinone derivatives also termed "legal highs", are explored with the use of metallic modified screen-printed electrochemical sensors (SPES). It is found that no significant electrochemical enhancement is evident with the use of either in situ bismuth or mercury film modified SPES compared to the bare underlying electrode substrate. In fact, the direct electrochemical reduction of the cathinone derivatives mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone; 4-MMC) and 4′-methyl-N-ethylcathinone (4-methylethcathinone; 4-MEC) is found to be possible for the first time, without heavy metal catalysis, giving rise to useful voltammetric electroanalytical signatures in model aqueous buffer solutions. This novel electroanalytical methodology is validated toward the determination of cathinone derivatives (4-MMC and 4-MEC) in three seized street samples that are independently analyzed with high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) wherein excellent agreement between the two analytical protocols is found. Such an approach provides a validated laboratory tool for the quantification of synthetic cathinone derivatives and holds potential for the basis of a portable analytical sensor for the determination of synthetic cathinone derivatives in seized street samples.