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Breakthrough in club drug screening

Published: 27th April 2010

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A MANCHESTER undergraduate has become the first scientist to chemically analyse the club-drug Spice Gold Spirit using mass spectrometry.

Claire Emanuel, a third-year Forensic Science student at Manchester Metropolitan University and colleagues from the School of Biology, Chemistry and Health Science also demonstrated for the first time that solid probe spectrometry can be used to screen so-called ‘herbal highs’ for any illegal compounds.

Spice products were banned in the UK in December 2009 after it was found that the potency of the chemical components of samples were 5-10 times higher than THC, the active ingredient in skunk and marijuana.

But they remain hugely popular among young clubbers and readily available in shops and over the internet.

Herbs or drugs?

Claire said: "Despite the ban, there are loads more on the market replacing the banned ones. Many are variants of herbs that are sprayed with compounds, called cannabinoids, that look chemically similar to that of the components of THC.

"Spice substances have only been analysed properly by around three research groups globally and our paper is the first independent peer reviewed academic analysis of Gold Spirit."

Claire, from Swansea, used the School’s state-of-the-art gas chromatography mass spectrometry facilities to screen the spice product, which to the human eye, is indistinguishable from a herb.

"We now know there is a highly accurate and quick method to test a sample and prove without any doubt, the presence (or absence) of banned components," she said.

Career in chemistry

According to Claire’s supervisor Dr Craig Banks, the method is useful in forensic situations where a range of products need screening, and may help towards new spot tests being developed for spice herbal products.

Claire who is due to graduate in the summer and was to enrol on a teacher training course, has now postponed her PGCE to pursue a Master’s degree researching other herbal substances.

Her paper "Spice up Your Life: Screening the Illegal Components of ‘Spice’ Herbal Products" will be published in Analytical Methods with Dr Banks and technician Bill Ellison as assistant authors.

"It is rare for an undergraduate scientist to be published so early in her career. She has a bright future," added Dr Banks.