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A fast screening tool for the identification of new psychoactive substances

Handheld Raman device
Jan 18 2019

JRC scientists developed a rapid, field-deployable screening method to help customs laboratories identify new psychoactive substances (NPS).

The consumption of new psychoactive substances (NPS) is growing continuously with new molecules constantly appearing on the drug market.

The threat to public health tends to be more severe because those substances are used for recreational purposes with a toxicity level often unknown and their control is cumbersome. Therefore, there is an urgent need for developing fast and nondestructive analytical methods for their detection in the field, which at the same time minimize the risk of intoxicating operators during testing.

Handheld Raman devices provide the user with many advantages as they can be easily used in the field and the sample can be measured through the packaging container, thereby reducing the risk of exposure to dangerous substances.

The JRC operates a narcotics laboratory to support the Customs Laboratories European Network (CLEN) with advanced analytical techniques for the identification of unknown substances. A Raman handheld device and machine learning tools were employed for the identification and classification of three NPS families, namely:

  • cathinons
  • synthetic cannabinoid
  • fentanyl derivatives or analogues

The study proved the feasibility to screening unknown chemicals for the presence of NPS directly in the field, which is of great relevance for stopping such substances entering the drug market.

The method can provide a first indication about the chemical nature of a suspicious product and classify it as belonging either to the fentanyl, cathinone, or synthetic cannabinoid NPS families.

It also protects in a better way occupational health and safety of customs officers carrying out testing in the field.

The work will be further developed to facilitate exchange of reference data in the spectral libraries of handheld detection devices used by EU customs services.

Read more in: J. Omar et al.: Identification of new psychoactive substances (NPS) by Raman spectroscopy. Journal of Raman Spectroscopy 2018; 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1002/jrs.5496