Tox Tuesday: Synthetic cathinones

December 18, 2018

As the drug crisis around the world deepens, some of the more difficult-to-deal-with substances of abuse are the manmade ones. In part, this is because synthetic, or “designer,” drugs can be incredibly potent, but also because their easily adaptable formulations make them tricky to legislate.

One of these types of drugs are synthetic cathinones, which are also referred to as “bath salts.” These are manmade stimulants chemically related to cathinone, a central nervous stimulant and active component in an East African/Arabian shrub called khat. Chemically, the drugs have similarities with amphetamines and MDMA/ecstasy.

They’re usually swallowed, inhaled or injected as a powder. When consumed, they can cause irritability, insomnia, dizziness and euphoria due to sharply increased levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. They might also lead to increased heart rate, chest pain, nosebleeds, nausea and vomiting, in part because of a surge of neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Some users of the drug have reportedly suffered hallucinations, delirium and intense paranoia. The drugs can be addictive and deadly.

Formulations of synthetic cathinones go under a plethora of different scientific and street names: Monkey Dust (or MDPV/methylenedioxypyrovalerone), MCAT (or mephedrone), flakka, ivory wave, vanilla sky, white night — the list goes on. Different formulations are more popular in different regions of the world.

Part of what gave synthetic cathinones the popularity they have today was low cost and easy access. The drugs could be purchased from gas stations and smoke shops for cheaper prices than traditional stimulants such as methamphetamine and cocaine. Synthetic cathinones are also often taken unknowingly due to commonly being mixed with “Molly” or ecstasy to increase potency and increase profits.

There was a relatively short window of time from when the drugs came into prevalence and when they were banned. The drugs began hitting the scene with increased frequency around 2010 and were banned in the U.K. the same year. They were made illegal in 2012 in the U.S. and Canada.

Testing for synthetic cathinones

Over time, accurate tests have been developed for several forensic matrices (including blood, urine, plasma and oral fluid) that can screen for some of the most common compounds in bath salts, like MDPV, mephedrone and methylone.

Neogen offers a synthetic cathinones (methcathinone) ELISA test kit that provides detection of over 10 different cathinone metabolites in blood, urine and oral fluid. We optimized our test kit for detection of methcathinone, which is a Schedule I substance in the U.S.