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Fast market for legal highs poses challenge for scientists

First you’ve got to work out what’s in it. Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab

Legal highs that are novel psychoactive substances (NPS) have flooded Britain over the past few years and their use has increased drastically. NPS are cleverly constructed designer drugs often structurally based on previously controlled substances.

Mitigating the potential harm these substances can cause presents a complex challenge for legislators, law enforcement and scientists. By partly changing the chemical structure of the molecule which makes up a drug, manufacturers can ensure it falls beyond the definitions of current legislation and can therefore be purchased legally online. This is why they are “legal” highs, if not necessarily safe ones.

Products are marketed as “bath salts” or “plant foods” and labelled “not for human consumption” to distract from their intended use as recreational drugs.

Little is known about the actual effects of many NPS on the human body and psyche. Many legal highs have only recently appeared, which drastically limits the information available for researchers. The real challenge for analysts is to address the rapidly changing market. Research into physiological effects is being conducted all over Europe in a bid to gain as much information as possible to inform health-care communities.

One particular product called AMT (5-methoxy-α-methyltryptamine), a psychedelic substance, has recently been making headlines. The death of at least one person and serious health problems have been linked to the drug.

AMT, which is structurally similar to amphetamine, was seen as a “legal” alternative to LSD among drug users. However, it appears that overdosing on AMT may prove fatal.

Online forums

Since so little is known about the actual effects of the substance, reports on user forums or blogs are a vital source of information for both scientists and government legal advisers.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) constantly gathers intelligence and produces risk assessments on new emerging substances on the European market. It is advising governments on decision making as to which of these products could be placed under control and therefore helps EU member countries to ban potentially harmful substances.

The UK recently put a temporary class drug order into place to restrict the supply of dangerous drugs by applying a ban which lasts 12 months and permits for permanent implementation of the banned substance into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This allows a faster response to the imminent threat of harm that designer drugs pose on society. At the moment there is no such ban on AMT.

The anonymity and simplicity of the purchasing process make legal highs accessible to a wider user spectrum than conventional street drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines.

Purchasing with a click of a button, delivery by mail and the ability to consume in the surroundings of your own home seems to attract users who may have not been tempted to use recreational drugs otherwise.

The race to test new drugs

For scientists these new designer drugs pose a challenge of a different nature. Methods and techniques can often be adapted to analyse these products but ultimate confirmation using standard substances (samples) is a real issue.

The organic synthesis of new substances cannot be performed by any chemistry laboratory. Specialist equipment is needed for the production steps as well as to certify that the desired chemical structure has been produced.

There is a time lag between the discovery of a new substance trend on the market and the possibility of purchasing a standard which can be used in forensic routine analysis. When legal highs become controlled drugs, it is vital to identify the active ingredient and confirm the findings by comparison to a certified standard to obtain a successful prosecution.

Learning to adapt

At the University of Lincoln we have successfully developed a rapid screening method for the analysis of NPS in street formulations. The technology of fast gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry, which very quickly separates volatile molecules before analysing their masses accurately, is based on instrumentation routinely used in forensic drug laboratories. Through adaptation we were able to speed up the analysis process significantly as well as increasing the accuracy of results.

A rather old-fashioned method of chemical microscopy was also successfully adapted, by using modern technology such as digital microscopy and image processing, for the analysis of some of the new designer drugs. This method was recently acknowledged by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime for analysis of a substance called benzylpiperazine, or BZP, a legal high that was classified a Class C drug in the UK in 2009.

Based on current trends it can be assumed that new legal highs will continue to emerge for some time. The possibilities open to anonymous drug creators are endless and the market seems hungry to find new recreational drugs which are perceived as safe to use while giving a high. To scientists the new substance trends present important challenges to be tackled with everything analytical chemistry has to offer - no matter how old or new.

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