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Forensic Toxicology

Designer Drugs

Study identifies new types of narcotics distributed under the ecstasy name

EDUARDO CESARYoung Paulistas who fuel their escapades on pills of the synthetic drug ecstasy might be buying a pig in a poke. A study conducted by the São Paulo Techno-Scientific Police Authority confirmed that less than half of synthetic drugs (specifically 44.7%) seized in the state contain the active ingredient in 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, better known as MDMA. The survey identified 20 different active substances in the pills seized. The study may be used to help medical teams provide the correct treatment for people who have landed in the hospital because of their use of this kind of drug. It was conducted by criminal expert José Luiz da Costa, at the Forensic Toxicology Unit of the São Paulo Technical-Scientific Police Authority, in partnership with biochemist Rodrigo Resende at the Biological Sciences Institute at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

The main goal of the project was to investigate the active substances present in pills sold under the name of ecstasy. “We analyzed samples from 150 different police seizures in the São Paulo metropolitan area, Campinas, São José dos Campos, Sorocaba, Ribeirão Preto, Bauru and Presidente Prudente, between August 2011 and July 2012,” he says. “Based on the results, we were able to gain a greater understanding of the synthetic drug trafficking routes and strengthen our efforts to prevent, diagnose and treat acute intoxication caused by these drugs.” MDMA was developed by German chemist Anton Köllisch (1888-1916) for the pharmaceutical company Merck, which patented it on December 24, 1912. Neither Köllisch nor Merck anticipated, however, the impact this substance would have on the club culture, led by disco music drug-filled parties beginning in the 1980s. The drug’s “success” in this environment is attributable to some of its effects on the human body, including an increase in the brain of serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline, which are substances that promote euphoria, a feeling of well-being and pleasure, and have a disinhibiting effect that render users more sociable. That’s why ecstasy has been nicknamed the “love drug.”

Disastrous effects
Like all drugs that are abused, ecstasy also has its disastrous side, and it can cause serious damage to people who take it. In addition to the effects users seek, they may also experience nausea, dehydration (which is why they have to drink water), hyperthermia, hyponatremia (drop in the sodium concentration in blood, which causes swelling in the brain) and hypertension. When extreme, these effects can cause exhaustion, convulsions and even death. When ecstasy is ingested with alcoholic beverages, there is a risk of cardiorespiratory shock, which can also lead to death. These effects are known and treatable when the victim receives first aid.

Real and dummy ecstasy at the São Paulo Techno-Scientific Police

EDUARDO KNAPP / FOLHAPRESSReal and dummy ecstasy at the São Paulo Techno-Scientific PoliceEDUARDO KNAPP / FOLHAPRESS

The situation gets more complex, however, when someone believes he took ecstasy and reports that to the doctor, when in fact, he actually took a different drug without knowing. “People head out to party, and they no longer know what they’re taking,” says Costa. This increases the danger because medical providers may not give appropriate treatment. The results of the survey conducted by Da Costa are critical for this reason. Among the 20 substances identified by the study, the second most common, after MDMA, was methamphetamine, present in 22% of the samples tested. In the same class as amphetamines, but more potent and with a longer lasting impact, methamphetamine leads to dependency and a user profile very similar to that of cocaine. Its effect is similar and, like cocaine, may also lead to anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness and aggression.

In the samples, Costa also detected substances like 2,5-dimethoxy-4-bromophenethylamine (2C-B), amphetamine, amfepramone, benzocaine, caffeine, ketamine, clobenzorex, ephedrine, fenproporex, phencyclidine, phenobarbital, lidocaine and sibutramine. Dimethoxyamphetamine (DMA), chlorophenylpiperazine (CPP), cocaine, pyrovalerone and trifluoromethylphenilpiperazine (TFMPP) were also identified. Not all of these substances are illegal, but the vast majority have effects similar to those of MDMA – otherwise, consumers would not buy them. This is where the traffickers show their savvy. The conventional ecstasy formulation, which was pure and came from Europe (mainly Holland and Belgium), dominated the market for synthetic drugs in Brazil in the 1990s when it arrived there, up until 2005. After that, under pressure from law enforcement and the legal system, the large producers and traffickers changed their strategy. They began to replace MDMA with other substances that had a similar effect in pills that were the same color and shape as the original formulation but under the ecstasy label. “This substitution of active ingredients happens almost every six months,” says Costa. Today, the substances in vogue are synthetic cathinones, a new group of drugs that includes mephedrone, methylone,  methylenedioxypyrovalerone, flephedrone and naphyrone, also known as “bath salts.” They are similar to natural cathinone, an alkaloid found in the shrub called khat (Catha edulis), which is native to the tropical regions of East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. They are stimulants, with effects similar to those of ecstasy and amphetamines.

Diagnostic photonics
The findings of this study inspired researchers to consider developing a diagnostic kit to detect the drugs taken by users. However, the traffickers’ strategies represent a challenge. By the time a kit to detect a certain substance is ready, that substance has probably already been replaced with something else. This means that the kits could be used for conventional drugs like cocaine, marijuana and their derivatives along with MDMA and its derivatives. Resende launched an effort to develop a kit using nanotechnology and Raman spectroscopy, a high resolution photonic technique that in just a few seconds can provide structural and chemical information on almost any material, whether organic or inorganic, making its identification possible.

Resende explains that this technique is applied directly to the sample to be analyzed, without the need for any special preparation of the material. “Moreover, the surface of the material is not changed in any way, so there is no loss of material,” he says. “But we had to abandon the project because we ran out of money, and we could no longer draw on our own funds,” says Resende. As a result, Costa says the way forward is for emergency medical toxicology teams to stay in close touch with technical-scientific police authorities so that they are aware of which drugs are being seized, and hence know what are the “in drugs” right now.

Assessment of the Composition of Synthetic Drugs Seized in the State of São Paulo: Implications for Toxicology and Police Intelligence (No 2011/06849-2); Grant mechanism: Regular Line of Research Project Award; Principal investigator: José Luiz da Costa (Techno-Scientific Police Authority); Investment R$46,260.70.

Scientific Article
Togni, L. R. et al. The variability of ecstasy tablets composition in Brazil. Journal of Forensic Sciences. V. 60, No. 1, p. 147-51. January 2015.