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Bath salts difficult to detect in biological samples: Study

02-25 | By CSAA Team

Bath salts difficult to detect in biological samples: Study

Designer drugs, including synthetic cathinones, which continue to make headlines in the United States, refer to stimulants, hallucinogens or depressants that are produced in illegal laboratories. Sold as “legal” products such as bath salts, plant food or herbal products, these recreational drugs produce feelings of euphoria and alertness similar to the effects of amphetamines and cocaine.

Although not much is known about the effects of synthetic cathinones on the human brain, a 2016 study – titled “Improved Detection of Synthetic Cathinones in Forensic Toxicology Samples: Thermal Degradation and Analytical Considerations” – states that these drugs can be more potent than the natural product and, in some cases, very dangerous.

The new study, conducted at Sam Houston State University (SHSU) and published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology, highlights the challenges linked to the detection of these drugs in biological samples.

Responding to the public health threat posed by these synthetic drugs, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) banned some synthetic cathinones in 2011, but the production of new designer drugs is still on.

“State and federal efforts to curb the use of these drugs have had some success, but the proliferation of new synthetic cathinones presents an ongoing challenge to the forensic community,” said Dr. Sarah Kerrigan, chair of the department of forensic science at the SHSU.

“The forensic community’s analytical methods must keep pace with illicit drug trends, but not all laboratories are capable of testing for these drugs despite the fact that their use may have very serious public health and safety consequences.”

Cathinone: New generation of dangerous ‘designer drugs’

Synthetic cathinones stimulate the central nervous system and its effects are often comparable to those caused by 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA).

Synthetic drugs are highly addictive and produce effects similar to that of amphetamines and cocaine and have been linked to an increasing number of emergency room visits in recent years. To detect the traces of these drugs in biological samples in fatalities, intoxication or impaired driving cases, many laboratories routinely use gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS). Unfortunately, these drugs cannot be detected in biological samples as they have no exact chemical composition.

While alternative techniques, including liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC/MS/MS) and liquid chromatography-quadrupole-time-of-flight/mass spectrometry (LC-q-TOF), are being used to detect cathinones in various samples, the current immunoassay-based screening methods may not be ideal for presumptively identifying these dangerous designer drugs due to drug instability and the possibility of thermal degradation during analysis.

In the U.S. most of these drugs are listed under the Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act or are regulated through analog law provisions. But most of these drugs are available online at affordable prices which limits the effectiveness of regulation. When the DEA banned cathinones in 2011, manufacturers replaced them with new alternatives, which enabled users to evade attempts at regulation. Screening methods for bath salts are not widely available, and several designer stimulants cross-react in amphetamine immunoassays, therefore, it is difficult to detect them in biological evidence.

The way forward

According to a National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) report released in 2015, illicit drug use in the U.S. has been consistently increasing. An estimated 24.6 million Americans aged 12 or older (9.4 percent of the population) were found to use an illicit drug in a month prior to the survey, says the 2013 annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The effects of designer drugs can vary significantly; therefore, it is imperative to consult a medical professional to reduce the possible damage that these drugs may have done to the body. When people get addicted, they need to recognize the dysfunction in their life and make changes to start living a sober lifestyle. There is no way of knowing the addiction problem until it is too late, hence, behavioral therapy and counseling may be appropriate to deal with addiction.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction, call the Substance Abuse Advisors in Colorado at 866-300-5857. Our representatives will guide you to the best treatment available in your area.


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