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Spicing up drug screening
13 May 2010
A method for quick identification of potential illegal components in commercial herbal products has been developed by UK scientists.
Some commercial herbal blends containing non-traditional cannabinoids attract attention as legal products with similar effects to cannabis. One such product, Spice, has been found to contain the synthetic compound JWH-018, a cannabinoid receptor agonist from the aminoalkylindole family. Until they were banned recently, the popularity of these herbal products had dramatically increased and they came to be known as 'legal highs'.
At the Manchester Metropolitan University, Craig Banks and his colleagues analysed the Spice product Gold Spirit using standard gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) techniques confirming the presence of JWH-018 in its composition. But given that the manufacturers can readily change the components of Spice, an easier method to identify the presence of prohibited compounds in these complex mixtures would be highly welcome, explains Banks.
Illegal components could be present in commercial herbal products
GC-MS requires liquid extraction of the sample before analysis so Banks went on to develop a screening process using solid probe MS, which does not require sample extraction. Taking a solid probe mass spectrum of the spice product and subtracting the GC mass spectra of alpha-tocopherol, the main component in Spice products, allows the minor fragmentation patterns to be clearly visible and quantifiable.
'We demonstrate that the sample can be used as received or found on a person and put into a solid probe MS which proves, without any doubt, the presence or absence of banned components,' says Banks. 'I see this method being taken up in labs worldwide as a screening tool and can likely be extended to other herbal highs,' he says.
Cristina Davis, an expert in analytical sensors from the University of California, Davis, US, agrees that 'this is a very valuable new screening tool for law enforcement and forensic investigations.' For Davis, one of the critical points of the research is the possibility of easily adapting the method to emerging prohibited compounds. 'Their test provides a new surveillance route for rapidly changing combinations of synthetic narcotics that may be manufactured and doped into commercial products,' she concludes.
'We have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of legal highs, for example methadrone has recently been banned but already there are alternatives out there to quickly replace it,' Banks adds.
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Link to journal article
Spice up your life: screening the illegal components of Spice herbal products
Claire E. J. Emanuel, Bill Ellison and Craig E. Banks, Anal. Methods, 2010, 2, 614
Also of interest
Health officials rush to ban 'Spice' mixtures
Former ACMD senior chemist Les King would join new independent drugs committee set up by dismissed scientist David Nutt