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5-minute test to identify dangerous synthetic drugs

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A Chemist from Australia has created a simple colour-change test that can detect synthetic cathinones also known as bath salts. Synthetic drugs are created to imitate the effects of drugs such as
MDMA, cocaine, or marijuana by changing one or more of the molecules in
the chemical structure.
The changes mean that the substances are often not picked up by tests
designed for existing drugs, and can therefore get past law enforcement
and border control more easily. Their effects can also be much stronger, and sometimes so unpredictable and dangerous, they seem to end up on the news a lot.”

They are similar to existing, often legal drugs, but are tweaked in the
manufacturing process to produce slight changes in chemical structure,”
said Mark Tahtouh,
team leader of forensic drug intelligence for the Australian Federal
Police. “That makes them hard to detect to start with, and also to
identify if they’re illicit.”

Right now, if a drug is suspected to be a synthetic cathinone, the
substance would have to be sent to a lab to be analysed – a long and
costly process that can seriously slow down any type of intervention.

“Lab-based instrumental techniques take much longer, and that doesn’t
include the time to get the substance to the lab and whether other
matters may require priority and urgent action,” says Tahtouh.

The new colour test, designed by chemist Morgan Philp from the
University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), should help law enforcement stop
huge shipments of the substance, while not holding up other items.

“Cathinones are typically made in China or India and sent here in disguise,” said Philp.
“If police or customs had early warning that a substance was suspicious
and should undergo proper instrumental analysis, they would be able to
intervene and prevent the drug reaching the streets.”

The best thing about the test is how simple it is to use – it doesn’t require specialists to perform it. You only need a pinhead-amount of the substance, and by adding three
reagents and heating the mixture to 80 degrees Celsius, you can tell by a
yellow or orange colour change if the substance is synthetic cathinone.
The whole thing takes a total of 5 to 10 minutes.

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“Colour tests are quick, easy to perform and don’t require specialisation on the part of the tester,” said Tahtouh.

“A positive result doesn’t give a definitive result but it does point
us in the right direction. If we have someone in custody and are
suspicious about a quantity of white powder, for example, we need to act
quickly.”

This research has been published in Forensic Chemistry.

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