Traditional law enforcement forensic testing can’t identify and ban new synthetic compounds fast enough. Traditional techniques, such as immunoassay, require lengthy development time for new test kits. Whether for seized drugs (aka controlled substances) or forensic toxicology samples, single quadrupole or triple quadrupole mass spectrometry-based techniques are adequate for screening and confirming known substances when optimized by the instrument operator. However, new unknown compounds or those with similar chemical structures to known compounds may be missed or incorrectly identified.
These drugs are packaged in small foil envelopes that say “for a refreshing bath, not for human consumption.” The packets may contain mephedrone, MDPV (methylenedioxy pryrovalerone) or any of eighty other chemicals. Bath salts typically mimic the effects of cocaine or methamphetamine. However, the use of the drugs may result in paranoia or violent behavior resulting in assaults, murders and suicides.
The most recent bath salt to appear is Flakka, which gets its name from Spanish slang for a beautiful woman (“la flaca”). Like other bath salts, it contains a key ingredient to a close cousin of MDPV. These chemicals bind to the neurons that normally keep the levels of mood-regulating neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, in check. The binding process floods the brain with synthetic chemicals. Cocaine and methamphetamine have similar modes of action in the brain, but the variations of chemicals in flakka have been observed to have longer-lasting and oftentimes more extreme effects.
Although the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has placed a temporary ban on flakka, drug makers can work around this ban, such as by sticking a “not for human consumption” label on the drug, said Lucas Watterson, a postdoctoral researcher at Temple University School of Medicine Center for Substance Abuse Research. He added that it will probably take several years to get the data necessary to put a federal ban on flakka. And a ban can be effective, at least in discouraging potential users.
Flakka stories have been reported over the past few years. A man who broke down the hurricane-proof doors of a police department admitted to being on flakka. People have been reported running through the street screaming that they are Satan while on a flakka trip. Authorities continue to warn about the dangers of the drug.
The New High of a Lifetime Might Cause Your Death
NBOMe is a manmade hallucinogen, a new designer drug similar to LSD, but far more potent and deadly. Just trace amounts can cause seizures, cardiac and respiratory arrest, and death. The drug is typically sold online and by word-of-mouth and is distributed on small fragments of paper, like LSD has been. Message boards and websites have been found to provide how-to tutorials and offer ‘trip reports’.
The DEA outlawed the drug late last year, just as it was getting a foothold. “These are dangerous chemicals. You are playing Russian roulette when you put these in your body,” said Douglas James, DEA Assistant, Special Agent. The DEA, as a matter of emergency, added NBOMe to its list of Schedule 1 controlled substances quickly. Schedule 1 drugs have no currently accepted medical use, have a high potential for abuse, and are the most dangerous of all drugs on the DEA’s drug schedules.
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New Synthetic Drugs Continue to Arrive on the Illicit Market
“Budder is gaining in popularity and is very potent with a high THC level,” Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Teri Barbera said. “It is very dangerous and explosive to produce.” Crime labs in Florida have reported seeing multiple cases of Budder come in for testing in recent months. Because the drug is still new -and because it ultimately tests as a marijuana product- the numbers are not being tracked, despite concern by officials.
Also called butane hash oil or marijuana wax, Budder is a gooey substance made in grow houses via a highly unstable process that requires soaking the leaves and stems of marijuana plants in a chemical solvent like butane to extract the most concentrated high-inducing ingredients.
Users never know exactly what they may be getting. Grow houses extract the THC in pretty concentrated forms, plus all the cannabinoids and chemicals in the plant, so it’s a grab bag that can vary from one product to another. One reason for the popularity: when vaped, Budder doesn’t have that telltale smell, so it’s easier to disguise.
As the cat-and-mouse game continues, forensic testing laboratories continue to look to new and more effective technology to stay ahead of the unknown compounds while maximizing their everyday lab analysis solutions.
How are you fighting the new war on drugs and future-proofing your forensic laboratory?
- Novel Psychoactive Substances: Challenges and Choices in Forensic Toxicology
- Forensic Toxicology Lab of the Future – Close your uncertainty gap with High Resolution Mass Spectrometry
- Learn more about ScreenID™ HRAM™ LC-MS System for Forensic Toxicology
- Visit our Forensic Laboratory Testing Community