Forensic Toxicology

, Volume 33, Issue 2, pp 175–194

Comprehensive review of the detection methods for synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones

  • Akira Namera
  • Maho Kawamura
  • Akihiro Nakamoto
  • Takeshi Saito
  • Masataka Nagao
Open AccessReview Article

DOI: 10.1007/s11419-015-0270-0

Cite this article as:
Namera, A., Kawamura, M., Nakamoto, A. et al. Forensic Toxicol (2015) 33: 175. doi:10.1007/s11419-015-0270-0

Abstract

A number of N-alkyl indole or indazole-3-carbonyl analogs, with modified chemical structures, are distributed throughout the world as synthetic cannabinoids. Like synthetic cannabinoids, cathinone analogs are also abused and cause serious problems worldwide. Acute deaths caused by overdoses of these drugs have been reported. Various analytical methods that can cope with the rapid changes in chemical structures are required for routine analysis and screening of these drugs in seized and biological materials for forensic and clinical purposes. Although many chromatographic methods to analyze each drug have been published, there are only a few articles summarizing these analytical methods. This review presents the various colorimetric detections, immunochemical assays, gas chromatographic–mass spectrometric methods, and liquid chromatographic–mass spectrometric methods proposed for the analysis of synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones.

Keywords

Synthetic cannabinoids Cannabimimetics Cathinones GC–MS-MS LC–MS-MS Analytical methods 

Abbreviations

A-796260

[1-[2-(4-Morpholinyl)ethyl]-1H-indol-3-yl](2,2,3,3-tetramethylcyclopropyl)methanone

A-834735

[1-[(Tetrahydro-2H-pyran-4-yl)methyl]-1H-indol-3-yl](2,2,3,3-tetramethylcyclopropyl)methanone

AB-001

Adamantan-1-yl(1-pentyl-1H-indol-3-yl)methanone

AB-005

[1-[(1-Methyl-2-piperidinyl)methyl]-1H-indol-3-yl](2,2,3,3-tetramethylcyclopropyl)methanone

AB-CHMINACA

N-[(1S)-1-(Aminocarbonyl)-2-methylpropyl]-1-(cyclohexylmethyl)-1H-indazole-3-carboxamide

AB-FUBINACA

N-(1-Amino-3-methyl-1-oxobutan-2-yl)-1-(4-fluorobenzyl)-1H-indazole-3-carboxamide

AB-PINACA

N-(1-Amino-3-methyl-1-oxobutan-2-yl)-1-pentyl-1H-indazole-3-carboxamide

ADB-FUBINACA

N-(1-Amino-3,3-dimethyl-1-oxobutan-2-yl)-1-(4-fluorobenzyl)-1H-indazole-3-carboxamide

ADBICA

N-(1-Amino-3,3-dimethyl-1-oxobutan-2-yl)-1-pentyl-1H-indole-3-carboxamine

ADB-PINACA

N-(1-Amino-3,3-dimethyl-1-oxobutan-2-yl)-1-pentyl-1H-indazole-3-carboxamide

AM-1220

[1-[(1-Methylpiperidin-2-yl)methyl]-1H-indol-3-yl]-(naphthalen-1-yl)methanone

AM-1248

Adamantan-1-yl[1-[(1-methyl-2-piperidinyl)methyl]-1H-indol-3-yl]methanone

AM-1241

(2-Iodo-5-nitrophenyl)-[1-(1-methylpiperidin-2-ylmethyl)-1H-indol-3-yl]methanone

AM-2201

[1-(5-Fluoropentyl)-1H-indol-3-yl]-1-naphthalenylmethanone

AM-2233

(2-Iodophenyl)[1-[(1-methyl-2-piperidinyl)methyl]-1H-indol-3-yl]-methanone

AM-679

(2-Iodophenyl)(1-pentyl-1H-indol-3-yl)methanone

AM-694

1-[(5-Fluoropentyl)-1H-indol-3-yl]-(2-iodophenyl)methanone

AMB

Methyl (1-pentyl-1H-indazole-3-carbonyl)-l-valinate

APICA

N-(1-Adamantyl)-1-pentyl-1H-indole-3-carboxamide

APINACA

N-(1-Adamantyl)-1-pentyl-1H-indazole-3-carboxamide

Cathinone

2-Amino-1-phenylpropan-1-one

CI

Chemical ionization

EI

Electron ionization

ELISA

Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay

ESI

Electrospray ionization

FDU-PB-22

Naphthalen-1-yl 1-(4-fluorobenzyl)-1H-indole-3-carboxylate

5F-PB-22

1-(5-Fluoropentyl)-8-quinolinyl ester-1H-indole-3-carboxylic acid

FUB-PB-22

Quinolin-8-yl-1-(4-fluorobenzyl)-1H-indole-3-carboxylate

GC

Gas chromatography

GC–MS

Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry

GC–MS-MS

Gas chromatography–tandem mass spectrometry

HU-210

3-(1,1′-Dimethylheptyl)-6aR,7,10,10aR-tetrahydro-1-hydroxy-6,6-dimethyl-6H-dibenzo[b,d]pyran-9-methanol

JWH-015

1-Naphthalenyl(2-methyl-1-propyl-1H-indol-3-yl)methanone

JWH-018

1-Naphthalenyl(1-pentyl-1H-indol-3-yl)methanone

JWH-019

1-Naphthalenyl(1-hexyl-1H-indol-3-yl)methanone

JWH-030

1-Naphthalenyl(1-pentyl-1H-pyrrol-3-yl)methanone

JWH-073

1-Naphthalenyl(1-butyl-1H-indol-3-yl)methanone

JWH-200

1-Naphthalenyl[1-[2-(4-morpholinyl)ethyl]-1H-indol-3-yl]methanone

JWH-203

2-(2-Chlorophenyl)-1-(1-pentyl-1H-indol-3-yl)ethanone

JWH-250

2-(2-Methoxyphenyl)-1-(1-pentyl-1H-indol-3-yl)ethanone

JWH-251

2-(2-Methylphenyl)-1-(1-pentyl-1H-indol-3-yl)ethanone

JWH-307

[5-(2-Fluorophenyl)-1-pentyl-1H-pyrrol-3-yl](naphthalene-1-yl)methanone

LC

Liquid chromatography

LC–MS

Liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry

LC–MS-MS

Liquid chromatography–tandem mass spectrometry

LLE

Liquid–liquid extraction

LOD

Limit of detection

LOQ

Limit of quantification

MAM-2201

[1-(5-Fluoropentyl)-1H-indol-3-yl](4-methyl-1-naphthalenyl)methanone

MDPBP

3′,4′-Methylenedioxy-α-pyrrolidinobutiophenone

MDPPP

3′,4′-Methylenedioxy-α-pyrrolidinopropiophenone

MDPV

3,4-Methylenedioxypyrovalerone

MN-18

N-1-Naphthalenyl-1-pentyl-1H-indazole-3-carboxamide

MOPPP

4′-Methoxy-α-pyrrolidinopropiophenone

NM-2201

Naphthalen-1-yl 1-(5-fluoropentyl)-1H-indole-3-carboxylate

NMR

Nuclear magnetic resonance

NNEI

N-1-Naphthalenyl-1-pentyl-1H-indole-3-carboxamide

MPBP

4′-Methyl-α-pyrrolidinobutiophenone

MPHP

4′-Methyl-α-pyrrolidinohexanophenone

MPPP

4′-Methyl-α-pyrrolidinopropiophenone

MRM

Multiple reaction monitoring

MS

Mass spectrometry

MS-MS

Tandem mass spectrometry

NPB-22

8-Quinolinyl 1-pentyl-1H-indazole-3-carboxylate

α-PBP

α-Pyrrolidinobutiophenone

α-PHP

α-Pyrrolidinohexanophenone

PP

Protein precipitation

α-PPP

α-Pyrrolidinopropiophenone

PTFE

Polytetrafluoroethylene

PV8

1-Phenyl-2-(pyrrolidin-1-yl)heptan-1-one

PV9

1-Phenyl-2-(pyrrolidin-1-yl)octan-1-one

α-PVP

1-Phenyl-2-(pyrrolidin-1-yl)pentan-1-one, α-pyrrolidinovalerophenone

PX1

(S)-N-(1-Amino-1-oxo-3-phenylpropan-2-yl)-1-(5-fluoropentyl)-1H-indole-3-carboxamide

QUPIC

Quinolin-8-yl 1-pentyl-1H-indole-3-carboxylate

QUCHIC

Quinolin-8-yl 1-(cyclohexylmethyl)-1H-indole-3-carboxylate

RCS-4

(4-Methoxyphenyl)(1-pentyl-1H-indol-3-yl)methanone

SDB-005

Naphthalen-1-yl 1-pentyl-1H-indazole-3-carboxylate

SIM

Selected ion monitoring

SPE

Solid-phase extraction

SPME

Solid-phase microextraction

SRM

Selected reaction monitoring

THJ-018

1-Naphthalenyl(1-pentyl-1H-indazol-3-yl)methanone

THJ-2201

[1-(5-Fluoropentyl)-1H-indazol-3-yl](naphthalen-1-yl)methanone

TLC

Thin-layer chromatography

TOFMS

Time-of-flight mass spectrometry

UV

Ultraviolet

UR-144

(1-Pentyl-1H-indol-3-yl)(2,2,3,3-tetramethylcyclopropyl)methanone

XLR-11

[1-(5-Fluoropentyl)-1H-indol-3-yl](2,2,3,3-tetramethylcyclopropyl)methanone

XLR-12

(2,2,3,3-Tetramethylcyclopropyl)[1-(4,4,4-trifluorobutyl)-1H-indol-3-yl]methanone

Introduction

Currently, many illegal drugs are abused worldwide, with serious social problems arising as a consequence. Although various stimulants and narcotics have been in use to date, new drugs targeting cannabinoid receptors have been abused since their existence in herbal mixtures was disclosed in 2008 [1]. HU-210, a synthetic classical cannabinoid, and cyclohexylphenols were commonly used as recreational drugs, but mainstream use has since changed to N-alkyl indole-3-carbonyl derivatives, such as drugs of the JWH and AM series (Fig. 1), because their activities are stronger than those of the conventional cannabinoids. These compounds are called cannabimimetics or synthetic cannabinoids and can be purchased as “spice” or “K2” in the drug market or via the Internet. Cathinones, also known as “bath salts” or “plant food,” are psychoactive drugs and are also abused as recreational drugs. The parent compound, cathinone, is a well-known stimulant, and can be isolated from the khat plant or produced by synthetic means. Cathinone analogs with high selectivity and strong activity for serotonin receptors and monoamine transporters have been distributed in the drug market (Fig. 2). The prevalence of cannabinoid and cathinone abuse in many countries has been reviewed elsewhere [2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7].
Fig. 1

Structures of synthetic cannabinoids

Fig. 2

Structures of cathinones

Although the same substances are distributed throughout the world, the times at which they are abused tend to vary depending on whether the substances are controlled by local laws. As shown in the reviews [2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7], new analogs appear in the drug market just after the preceding drug comes under regulation. Although many such substances are controlled in countries throughout the world, the regulations are usually limited by the structures of the drugs. Therefore, when the structure of a side chain or substitution is slightly different from that of the regulated drug, the analog is regarded as being beyond the scope of the regulation. These emerging drugs always show psychoactive actions because their chemical structures are similar to those of the drugs being controlled. However, the detailed pharmacological activities of these analogs are not known, which makes access easy and use of these drugs very dangerous to human health.

Although many researchers have focused on the development of detection methods, only a few analytical reviews that summarize the systematic identification and quantification techniques for these drugs have appeared [8, 9, 10]. In this review, we summarize the various techniques for the detection of synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones that have been published up to 2014, including colorimetric, immunochemical, and chromatographic methods.

Synthetic cannabinoids

Colorimetric detection

The Duquenois–Levine color test, which is used to identify classical cannabinoids such as Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, is negative for the synthetic cannabimimetics. The van Urk color test, which is used to identify indole-containing drugs of abuse, is also negative for these compounds. The use of 2,4-dinitrophenylhydrazine, which reacts with a keto moiety, is capable of reacting with synthetic cannabimimetics, such as the naphthoylindole, phenylacetylindole, benzoylindole, and cyclopropylindole classes, either in powder form or adsorbed onto plant material, and a positive test solution turns from yellow to orange. Although the LOD concentration was not detailed in the article, the solution tested contained at least 10 mg of cannabimimetic powder suspended in methanol (1 ml) [11]. The Marquis reagent, which reacts with all nitrogen-containing drugs, is positive for cyclohexylphenols and the JWH series. Although Dragendorff reagent is also positive for the JWH series, its LOD concentration is higher than that of Marquis reagent. Fast blue BB reacts with cyclohexylphenols, and the LOD concentration is not lower than that of Marquis reagent [12]. Iodoplatinate is also used as a detection reagent after TLC [13]. Although it is possible to detect synthetic cannabinoids with each reagent in these screening tests, it is difficult to detect small amounts or mixtures of synthetic cannabinoids.

Immunochemical detection

ELISAs developed in-house could be calibrated at 5 ng/ml with the 5-OH and 4-OH metabolites of JWH-018 and JWH-250, respectively, and evaluated for the detection of synthetic cannabinoids in urine [14]. Recently, some commercially available immunoassay kits, such as DrugCheck K2/Spice Test, DrugSmart Cassette, and RapiCard InstaTest, have been developed for the detection of these drugs in urine. These devices are more useful than the colorimetric methods, because they do not require special reagents or tools, and the results are obtained easily and quickly. The devices also can detect older types of synthetic cannabinoids, such as JWH-018 or JWH-073, but, unfortunately, new designer drugs such as QUPIC and AB-CHMINACA cannot be detected.

GC–MS detection

Typical mass spectra of synthetic cannabinoids are shown in Fig. 3. Molecular (M+) and/or fragment ions observed by full scan data acquisition of GC–MS reflect the structures of the synthetic cannabinoids [13, 15, 16]. As shown in Fig. 4, the fragmentation pathways of naphthoylindoles have been well studied for the identification of synthetic cannabinoids by GC–MS [12, 15]. Therefore, the identification of synthetic cannabinoids is facilitated by comparison of the spectra with commercial and open databases.
Fig. 3

Typical mass spectra of synthetic cannabinoids obtained by GC–MS. a JWH-018, b RCS-4, c JWH-250, d AM-1220, e THJ-018, f APICA, g NNEI, h ADBICA, i QUPIC (PB-22), j ADB-PINACA, k AB-CHMINACA

Fig. 4

Probable fragmentation pathways of synthetic cannabinoids by electrospray ionization and electron ionization (modified from references [12, 31])

In naphthoylindoles, the carbonyl group fragment ions, which are caused by α-cleavage of the alkylamino group of the indole, are typically observed. In addition, [M−17]+ is certainly observed in naphthoylindoles. For example, fragment ions at m/z 284 and 214 are observed in JWH-018, corresponding to those of the indole moiety caused by α-cleavage of the N-pentyl of indole and naphthoyl. Fragment ions at m/z 127 and 155 are observed in JWH-018, corresponding to the naphthalene group caused by the α-cleavage of the carbonyl group. Moreover, ions at m/z 324 are observed as [M−17]+ (Fig. 3a). Like naphthoylindoles, fragment ions caused by α-cleavage of the alkylamino group of the indole and carbonyl groups are shown, although [M−17]+ is not observed for benzoylindoles. For example, fragment ions at m/z 264 and 214 are observed for RCS-4, caused by α-cleavage of N-pentyl of the indole and 4-methoxybenzoyl. The ions at m/z 127 and 155, which are caused by naphthyl and naphthoyl moieties of naphthoylindoles (Fig. 3a), and the ion at m/z 135 caused by the 4-methoxybenzoyl moiety (Fig. 3b) are useful as precursor ions for identification of these drugs by GC–MS-MS. On the other hand, the methylpiperidine moiety is bound to the nitrogen of the indole, and the ion at m/z 98 is observed as the base peak (Fig. 3d). Unlike naphthoyl and benzoyl indoles, the base peak of the fragment ion caused by the N-alkylindole 3-carbonyl moiety for phenylacetyl (Fig. 3c), cyclopropyl, or adamantyl (Fig. 3f) indoles, is only shown in each full scan spectrum. Analogs, in which the indole skeleton is changed to an indazole, such as THJ-018, have also appeared on the market. In these analogs, molecular and N-dealkylated ions are typically observed in the spectrum (Fig. 3e).

Recently, amide- or ester-type analogs bonded with an N-alkylindole or N-alkylindazole 3-carbonyl moiety have appeared on the market [17, 18]. In these analogs, the abundance of the molecular ion is low, and the fragment ion caused by the indoyl (or indazoyl) moiety is observed as a base peak (Fig. 3f–k). Although the fragment ion caused by elimination of the terminal CO–NH2 is lower than that of the cleavage of the amide moiety in indole analogs, such as ADBICA (Fig. 3h) [19], the fragment ion caused by elimination of terminal CO–NH2 is as intense as that of the cleavage of the amide moiety in indazole analogs, such as ADB-PINACA and AB-CHMINACA (Fig. 3j, k) [20]. The substitution of the indole skeleton with the indazole moiety, such as in THJ-018 and THJ-2201 [21], has also been observed in these analogs. In these analogs, molecular and N-dealkylated ions are typically observed in the spectrum.

For example, in the simultaneous analysis of synthetic cannabinoid species, 10 mg of ground powder of the dried leaves was extracted with 10 ml of methanol under ultrasonication for 10 min. The extracts were centrifuged for 5 min at 3,000 rpm, and the supernatants were filtered and used for GC–MS analysis. The LODs were 0.5–1.0 mg/l, and linearity was obtained at concentrations up to 100 mg/l [16]. In another article [22], herbal samples (approximately 50 mg) were put into 10-ml headspace vials, and the vials were capped with 20-mm magnetic crimp seal caps with PTFE/silicone septa. The samples were incubated at 200 °C with pulse-agitation at 250 rpm. A StableFlex carboxen/polydimethylsiloxane fiber was inserted into the headspace for 5 min for extraction. The fiber was then injected into the GC inlet for 15 min to desorb the analytes. The LOD of synthetic cannabinoid in the samples was at least 20 μg.

The tentative identification of synthetic cannabinoids appears easy, but similar mass spectra are sometimes obtained by GC–MS because regio- and ring-substituted analogs are still distributed on the market. The misidentification of these analogs arises when using only the information from the mass spectra. When tandem and high-resolution MS are used to identify the conformational isomers or regioisomers, such misidentification does not occur [23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28]. Moreover, identification of cyclopropyl or ester analogs, such as UR-144 or QUPIC, is usually not possible because cyclopropyl analogs are heat-unstable and are easily degraded in the injection port of the GC instrument [29, 30].

LC–MS-MS detection

Many research groups have used LC–MS-MS for determination of synthetic cannabinoids in herbs and biological samples, and some have studied the fragmentation of synthetic cannabinoids in detail [15, 31]. The probable fragmentation pathways are shown in Fig. 4. Because the protonated molecular ion is only observed by LC–MS, and the information acquired by LC–MS is lesser than that for GC–MS, it is necessary to obtain other data that reflect the chemical structures by LC–MS-MS or TOFMS. Fragment ions are observed by product ion scanning when the protonated molecular ion is used as the precursor ion. In naphthoylindole, ions at m/z 127 and 155 are generated by naphthyl and naphthoyl moieties. However, information about the indole moiety tends to be not revealed by LC–MS-MS. On the other hand, the N-alkyl moiety of a synthetic cannabinoid is mainly modified for excretion into urine as a metabolite. Therefore, LC–MS-MS is a useful methodology to search for metabolites of synthetic cannabinoids in urine.

Recently, packages containing mixtures of multiple synthetic cannabinoids have been sold commercially, even though the package ingredients have been largely unknown to both sellers and buyers. In this aspect, the LC–MS-MS screening method is helpful in some estimation of the ingredients. Kneisel and Auwärter [32] demonstrated the simultaneous detection of 30 synthetic cannabinoids in serum; the LODs and LOQs were 0.01–2.0 and 0.1–2.0 ng/ml, respectively. There are many applications for analysis of synthetic cannabinoids in urine, hair, and oral fluids [33, 34, 35, 36, 37]. The typical published methods for analysis of synthetic cannabinoids in biological materials are summarized in Table 1 [38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54]. Simple LLE is usually used for the extraction of synthetic cannabinoids from biological materials because of the high hydrophobicity of the drugs. The chromatographic conditions are generally simple and do not require a special technique; octadecyl-type columns were used as analytical columns and analyses were performed in gradient mode.
Table 1

LC–MS or LC–MS-MS conditions for synthetic cannabinoids in biological materials

Target(s)

Sample(s)

Purification(s)

Column(s)

Mobile phase

LOD (ng/ml)

Linear range (ng/ml)

Reference(s)

JWH-018

Serum

LLE

Luna C18 (2) (150 mm, 2 mm ID, 5 μm) (Phenomenex)

10 mM ammonium acetate (0.1 % acetic acid, pH 3.2), methanol

0.07

0.21–20

[38]

JWH-018, JWH-073, JWH-019, JWH-250

Blood

LLE

Acquity UPLC HSS T3 (100 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 1.8 μm) (Waters)

1 % formic acid, methanol (1 % formic acid)

0.006–0.016

0.1–20

[39, 40]

Aminoalkylindoles, methanandamide

Serum

LLE

Luna phenyl hexyl (50 mm, 2 mm ID, 5 μm) (Phenomenex)

2 mM ammonium formate (0.2 % formic acid), methanol

0.1

0.1–2, 0.3–2 (methanandamide)

[41]

JWH-018, JWH-073, metabolites

Urine

Dilution (hydrolysis)

Zorbax Eclipse XDB-C18 (150 mm, 4.6 mm ID, 5 μm) (Agilent)

0.1 % formic acid, acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

<2.0

2–100

[42]

Metabolites of JWH-018 and JWH-073

Urine

SPE (hydrolysis)

Zorbax Eclipse XDB-C18 (150 mm, 4.6 mm ID, 5 μm) (Agilent)

0.1 % formic acid/acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid) (45:55), isocratic

<0.1

0.1–100

[43]

Metabolites of 8 synthetic cannabinoids

Urine

LLE (hydrolysis)

AQUASIL C18 (100 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 5 μm) (Thermo Scientific)

5 mM ammonium acetate, methanol/acetonitrile (1:1, 5 mM ammonium acetate)

 

0.1–10

[44]

Metabolites of JWH-018 and JWH-073

Urine

LLE (hydrolysis)

Acquity UPLC HSS T3 (100 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 1.8 μm) (Waters)

0.1 % formic acid (0.1 %), acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

 

4–400

[45]

30 Synthetic cannabinoids

Serum

LLE

Luna phenyl hexyl (50 mm, 2 mm ID, 5 μm) (Phenomenex)

0.2 % formic acid (2 mM ammonium formate), methanol

0.01–2.0

0.1–2.0 (2–40 : JWH-387)

[32, 46, 47, 48]

Metabolites of 7 synthetic cannabinoids

Urine

LLE (hydrolysis)

Luna C18 (150 mm, 2 mm ID, 5 μm) (Phenomenex)

0.2 % formic acid (2 mM ammonium formate), methanol

  

[49]

22 Synthetic cannabinoids

Hair

Ethanol ext

Luna phenyl hexyl (50 mm, 2 mm ID, 5 μm) (Phenomenex)

0.2 % formic acid (2 mM ammonium formate), methanol

0.5 pg/mg

 

[37]

JWH-018, JWH-073

Blood

LLE

Acquity UPLC BEH C18 (50 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 1.8 μm) (Waters)

0.1 % formic acid, acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

0.01

0.05–50

[50]

UR-144, metabolites, pyrolysis product

Urine

LLE (hydrolysis)

Zorbax Eclipse XDB-C18 (150 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 3.5 μm) (Agilent)

20 mM ammonium formate buffer (pH5), acetonitrile

  

[29]

UR-144, metabolites

Blood, urine

PP

Kinetex C18 (100 mm, 4.6 mm ID, 2.6 μm) (Phenomenex), Ascentis express C18 (7.5 cm, 2.1 mm ID, 2.7 μm) (Supelco)

0.1 % formic acid, acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

0.15 (blood)

0.5–100 (blood)

[51]

9 Synthetic cannabinoids, 20 metabolites

Urine

PP (hydrolysis)

XB-C18 (50 mm, 3.0 mm ID, 2.6 μm) (Kinetex)

0.1 % formic acid, acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

0.5–10

 

[34]

MAM-2201

Blood

SPE

InertSustain C18 HP (100 mm, 3 mm ID, 3 μm)

(GL Sciences)

0.1 % acetic acid, acetonitrile

1

2.5–100

[52]

5F-PB-22

Blood, serum

LLE

Acquity UPLC BEH C18 (100 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 1.7 μm) (Waters)

0.1 % formic acid, acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

0.1

0.5–10

[53]

Indole derivative synthetic cannabinoids

Saliva, urine, blood

PP (blood) LLE (urine, saliva) (hydrolysis)

Ascentis C18 (150 mm, 2.1 mm, 5 μm) (Supelco)

0.1 % formic acid (5 mM ammonium formate), acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

0.1–0.5

 

[54]

The identification of an unknown drug in a biological material without information is almost always difficult, even if analysis is carried out with LC–MS-MS. To overcome this situation, high-resolution MS or TOFMS become helpful tools for tentative estimation of parent drugs and their metabolites of synthetic cannabinoids.

To clarify the chemical structure of an unknown drug in a herbal blend product that contains more than several milligrams of the drug, GC–MS, LC–MS-MS, and high-resolution MS (or TOFMS) can be used to estimate the structure. The target compound is then purified by preparative LC or preparative TLC to obtain more than several milligrams of the compound of high purity, which is then analyzed by NMR spectroscopy [17, 18, 19, 20, 21]. The detailed chemical structure can be elucidated by the above laborious instrumental analyses.

Cathinones

Colorimetric detection

The Marquis reagent, which reacts with all nitrogen-containing drugs, is negative for cathinones, such as cathinone and mephedrone, but is positive for cathinone analogs that have a methylenedioxy moiety in each molecule. The cathinone analogs with a methylenedioxy moiety also react with the Chen reagent, which changes to orange in positive tests. Although the LOD concentration is not reported, the described test solution contained cathinone powder (at least 10 mg) suspended in methanol (1 ml) [55, 56, 57]. The combination of Marquis, Ehrlich, Simon, Lieberman–Burehand, and Mandelin reagents is useful for the detection of cathinones in samples. Like synthetic cannabinoids, the identification of these compounds, of course, cannot be performed using these methods; moreover, the detection of small amounts or mixtures of cathinones is difficult.

Immunochemical detection

Some researchers have tried to detect cathinones in urine using immunoassay technology [58, 59]. Some articles revealed false-positive results by immunoassays; for example, MDPV was cross-reactive with phencyclidine [60]. Therefore, specific detection of cathinones by a commercial immunoassay is not yet possible.

GC–MS-MS detection

Mass spectral profiles of cathinones are very simple in the positive mode of GC–MS, because only the base peak originating from the immonium ion in each molecule is observed. The probable fragmentation pathways of cathinones are described in previous articles [61, 62, 63, 64] and are shown in Fig. 5. However, this phenomenon makes the identification of cathinones difficult. To help identify cathinones, other information, such as tandem mass spectrometric data, are usually used because more structural information about the molecule is obtained.
Fig. 5

Probable fragmentation pathways of cathinones by electrospray ionization and electron ionization (modified from references [61, 62, 65, 66])

Zuba [61] introduced the systematic identification of cathinones using the mass spectra obtained. First, it should be checked whether the molecular ion is observed. The immonium ion (m/z = 16 + 14 n, n = 1, 2, 3,…) is then checked in the EI spectrum. If the immonium ion is found in the spectrum, the substance could be a straight-chained cathinone. If not, it is checked whether the ion for a pyrrolidine ring is observed (m/z = 70 + 14 n, n = 1, 2, 3,…). If this ion is found in the spectrum, the substance could be a cathinone with a pyrrolidine ring in the molecule [61]. There are various regioisomers in cathinones. To identify the cathinones, it is necessary to assign both the location and length of the bonded alkyl chain. Moreover, the ring-substituted moiety is also needed to be assigned. Zuba [61] demonstrated the following rules: the fragment ions reflecting the ring-substituted moiety are observed at m/z 77 and 105 for a nonsubstituted phenyl ring, at m/z 91 and 119 for a methylphenyl ring, and at m/z 121 and 149 for a methylenedioxyphenyl ring. Matsuta et al. [62] demonstrated the detailed analysis of MS data obtained by GC–EI-MS for identification of cathinones and specified indexing information. However, the ionization rate of the fragments in ring-substituted cathinones is remarkably weaker than that of the immonium ion. Other information obtained by TOFMS or CI-MS is helpful to delineate the molecular structure [63, 64, 65, 66]. The identification of the regioisomer of the fluorinated cathinones was demonstrated using CI-MS [67]. However, this phenomenon was suggested to be limited to these analogs.

The published methods for analysis of cathinones in biological materials are summarized in Table 2 [68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79]. Simple LLE is usually used for extraction of cathinones from biological materials. The chromatographic conditions are also simple and do not usually require a special technique.
Table 2

GC–MS conditions for cathinones in biological materials

Target(s)

Sample(s)

Purification

Derivatization(s)

Column(s)

LOD(s) (ng/ml)

Linear range (ng/ml)

Reference

MDPV, metabolites

Urine

SPE (hydrolysis)

Methyl, acetyl, trimethylsilyl

HP-1 (12 m, 0.2 mm ID, 0.33 μm) (Agilent)

[68]

MDPV, metabolites

Cellular fraction, urine

LLE (hydrolysis)

Trimethylsilyl

5 % Phenyl-methylsilicone (17 m, 0.2 mm ID, 0.33 μm) (J and W)

2

10–2,000

[69]

Mephedrone, MDPV

Blood, urine

LLE

 

DB-1 (30 m, 0.32 mm ID, 0.25 μm) (Agilent)

[70]

MDPV

Urine

LLE

Heptafluorobutyryl

HP-5MS (12 m, 0.2 mm ID, 0.33 μm) (Agilent), ZB-5MS (12 m, 0.2 mm ID, 0.33 μm) (Phenomenex)

10

20–2,000

[71]

Methylone

Blood

LLE

Heptafluorobutyryl

RTx-5 MS (30 m, 0.25 mm ID, 0.25 μm) (Restek)

50

100–2,000

[72]

α-PVP, pyrovalerone (PV), MDPV

Blood

SPME

 

InertCap 5 (30 m, 0.25 mm ID, 0.25 μm) (GL Sciences)

0.5 (PV, PVP), 1.0 (MDPV)

1–200

[73]

MDPV, α-PVP, α-PBP

Blood

LLE (Extrelut)

 

InertCap 5MS/NP (30 m, 0.25 mm ID, 0.25 μm) (GL Sciences)

1

2–2,000

[74]

MDPV

Blood, tissue, urine

SPE

 

Zebron Guardian ZB-50 (10 m, 0.18 mm ID, 0.18 μm) (Phenomenex)

10–2,000

[75]

MDPV

Blood, urine

LLE

 

Rtx-5 ms (30 m, 0.25 mm ID, 0.25 μm) (Restek)

[76]

3,4-Dimethylmethcathinone, metabolites

Urine

LLE

Trifluoroacetyl

DB-5MS (30 m, 0.25 mm ID, 0.25 μm) (Agilent)

[77]

16 Synthetic cathinones

Urine

LLE

Trifluoroacetyl

CP7684 (10 m, 0.15 mm ID, 0.12 μm) (Agilent)

[78]

α-PVP, metabolites

Urine

LLE

Trimethylsilyl

DB-5MS (30 m, 0.25 mm ID, 0.25 μm) (Agilent)

[79]

LC–MS-MS detection

The strategy for the detection of cathinones by LC–MS-MS is almost same as that for synthetic cannabinoids; almost all methods use MRM or SRM mode for sensitive determination. The probable fragmentation pathways are shown in Fig. 5. The [M+H]+ ion is selected as a precursor ion, and three product ions that reflect the chemical structures of the cathinones are selected. Using this method, 30–50 drugs are monitored simultaneously in samples [80, 81, 82]. The published methods for analysis of cathinones in biological materials are summarized in Table 3 [68, 69, 74, 75, 77, 79, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98]. Simple LLE is usually used for the extraction of cathinones from biological materials. The chromatographic conditions are also simple and do not require a special technique.
Table 3

LC–MS or LC–MS-MS conditions for cathinones in biological materials

Target(s)

Sample(s)

Purification(s)

Column(s)

Mobile phase(s)

LOD(s) (ng/ml or g)

Linear range (ng/ml or g)

Reference

MDPV, metabolites

Urine

SPE (hydrolysis)

Hypersil Gold column (10 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 1.9 μm) (Thermo Scientific)

10 mM ammonium formate (0.1 % formic acid), acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

  

[68]

MDPV, metabolites

Cellular fraction, urine

LLE (hydrolysis)

Zorbax Eclipse Plus C18 (100 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 1.8 μm) (Agilent)

0.1 % formic acid, acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

  

[69]

MDPV

Serum

SPE

Phenyl–hexyl (50 mm, 3.0 mm ID, 3 μm) (Phenomenex)

10 mM ammonium acetate (0.1 % formic acid), methanol

3

10–500

[83]

Mephedrone

Plasma

LLE

Synergi Fusion (150 mm, 4.6 mm ID)(Phenomenex); Spherisorb (150 mm, 4.6 mm ID) (Waters)

10 % acetonitrile (25 mM triethylammonium phosphate buffer), isocratic

39

78–10,000

[84]

9 Cathinones

Blood

PP

Prodigy Phenyl-3 (150 mm, 2.0 mm ID, 5 μm) (Phenomenex)

0.1 % formic acid, methanol

0.5–3

10–400

[82]

7 Cathinones

Hair

LLE

Kintex PFP (50 mm, 2 mm ID, 2.6 μm) (Phenomenex)

5 mM ammonium formate (pH 3.5), methanol (5 mM ammonium formate)

10–50 pg/mg

 

[85]

Butylone

Blood, liver

SPE

Allure PFP (50 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 5 μm) (Restek)

0.02 % formic acid (2 mM of ammonium formate), acetonitrile

25 (blood)

50–2,000 (blood)

[86]

4-Methylethcathinone

Blood, urine

LLE

Zorbax SB-C18 (50 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 1.8 μm) (Agilent)

0.1 % formic acid, acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

0.96 (blood), 0.68 (urine)

10–1,000

[87]

MDPV, α-PVP, α-PBP

Hair

LLE (Extrelut)

Phenyl-hexyl (150 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 3 μm) (Agilent)

10 mM ammonium formate (0.1 % formic acid, pH 3.3)/methanol (65:35), isocratic

0.02 ng/10-mm

0.05–50 ng/10-mm

[74]

Mephedrone

Blood

PP

Zorbax SB-C18 (50 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 1.8 μm) (Agilent)

0.1 % formic acid, acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

0.08

1–100

[88]

MDPV, mephedrone

Blood, plasma, urine

SPE

Kintex PFP (50 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 1.8 μm) (Phenomenex)

2 mM ammonium formate (2 % formic acid), acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

2

5–2,000

[89]

Mephedrone

Blood, urine

LLE

Zorbax SB-C18 (150 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 3.5 μm) (Agilent)

0.1 % formic acid, methanol (0.1 % formic acid)

1 (blood), 2 (urine)

20–2,000

[90]

10 Cathinones

Blood, other specimens

LLE

Zorbax XDB-C18 (150 mm, 4.6 mm ID, 5 μm) (Agilent)

5 mM ammonium acetate, methanol/acetonitrile

5–200

[91]

MDPV

Hair

SPE

Zorbax Eclipse Plus C18 (50 mm, 2.1 mm, 1.8 μm) (Agilent)

0.1 % formic acid, acetonitrile

2.0 pg/mg

2–3,000 pg/mg

[75]

MDPV

Blood

PP

Zorbax SB-C18 (50 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 1.8 μm) (Agilent)

0.1 % formic acid, acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

0.5

5–500

[92]

Buphedrone

Blood

PP

Zorbax SB-C18 (50 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 1.8 μm) (Agilent)

0.1 % formic acid, acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

0.3

1–1,000

[93]

3,4-Dimethylmethcathinone, metabolites

Urine

PP (hydrolysis)

L-column2 ODS (150 mm, 1.5 mm ID, 5 μm) (Chemicals Evaluation and Research Institute)

10 mM ammonium formate buffer (pH 5), methanol

10–5,000

[77]

MDPV, metabolites

Plasma

PP (hydrolysis)

Synergy polar-RP (100 mm, 2 mm ID, 2.5 μm) (Phenomenex)

0.1 % formic acid, acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

0.1

0.25–1,000

[94]

α-PBP

Blood, urine, tissues

QuEChERS

Zorbax Eclipse Plus C18 (100 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 1.8 μm) (Agilent)

10 mM ammonium formate (0.1 % formic acid),

acetonitrile

0.05 (blood, urine), 0.1 (tissues)

8.6–4,280

[95]

3,4-Dimethylmethcathinone, metabolites

Blood, urine

QuEChERS

Shim-pack XR-ODS III (50 mm, 2.0 mm ID, 1.6 μm) (Shimadzu); L-column2 ODS (150 mm, 1.5 mm ID, 5 μm) (Chemical Evaluation and Reaearch Institute)

10 mM ammonium formate, methanol; 10 mM ammonium formate (pH 5.0), methanol

1.03 (blood), 1.37 (urine)

5–400

[96]

MDPV metabolittes

Urine

PP, LLE, SPE (hydrolysis)

Atlantis T3 (150 mm, 2.1 mm) (Waters)

10 mM ammonium formate buffer (0.1 % formic acid), acetonitrile (0.1 % formic acid)

  

[97]

α-PVP, metabolites

Urine

PP (hydrolysis)

L-column2 ODS (150 mm, 1.5 mm ID, 5 μm) (Chemicals Evaluation and Research Institute)

10 mM ammonium formate (pH 5), methanol

10–10,000

[79]

PV9

Blood, urine

QuEChERS

Zorbax Eclipse Plus C18 (100 mm, 2.1 mm ID, 1.8 µm) (Agilent)

10 mM ammonium formate (0.1 % formic acid), acetonitrile

0.05

10–1,000

[98]

In the same way as identification by GC–MS, other information obtained by TOFMS or tandem MS is needed to clarify the molecular structure. An authentic drug or library database is needed to identify the drugs. Moreover, the probable fragmentation pathways of cathinones are described in the previous articles [61, 65, 66, 99]. These data are helpful in identifying the drugs.

As described in the section on synthetic cannabinoids, we occasionally encounter a dubious product that contains more than several milligrams of an unknown cathinone-like compound. In such a case, GC–MS, LC–MS, high-resolution MS (or TOFMS), and finally NMR spectroscopy are used to clarify the detailed chemical structure of the compound.

Concentrations in the cases of abuse

Synthetic cannabinoids

The common method of consumption of synthetic cannabinoids is smoking, which is the same as for conventional cannabis. The maximum concentrations of synthetic cannabinoids in serum are reached in less than 10 min after smoking [38]. The drugs absorbed in the body are metabolized smoothly, and the concentrations decrease rapidly. Moreover, there is also a report that cannabinoids accumulate in the adipose tissue because of their high lipophilicity [52]. Therefore, detection of the drug from serum is usually difficult. Synthetic cannabinoids absorbed in the human body are metabolized to hydroxyl or carboxyl derivatives of the aromatic ring or N-alkyl side chain [100]. It is difficult to identify the parent drug and its metabolites in blood by GC–MS alone because the fragmentation of the metabolites is similar to that of the parent drug and analogs. Moreover, the concentration of the unchanged synthetic cannabinoids in blood is very low, and the number of metabolites that are commercially available is small. Low sensitivity is a limitation for the determination of synthetic cannabinoids in blood by GC–MS.

Although the concentration is influenced by the sampling time after drug intake and by the intake amount, concentrations of these drugs in serum were reported in the range of 0.1–190 ng/ml in poisoning cases [46]. In fatal cases, the concentrations of the drugs in blood were 0.1–199 ng/ml for JWH-018 and 0.1–68.3 ng/ml for JWH-073 [50], 12 ng/ml for AM-2201 [100], 1.1–1.5 ng/ml for 5F-PB-22 [53], and 12.4 ng/ml for MAM-2201 [52].

Cathinones

Unlike synthetic cannabinoids, the most common method of consumption of cathinones are insufflation (snorting) or ingestion. Inhalation, sublingual and rectal administration, and intramuscular or intravenous injection have also been reported. Unlike synthetic cannabinoids, the concentration of cathinones in blood is thought to vary because of the many modes of administration used by abusers. Only the blood concentration at one point and at several points have been quantified, and there is no report on continuous monitoring of the profile of the drug concentration in blood. The fatal concentration of the drug in blood was reported to be around 400 ng/ml [75]. The stability of cathinones in blood samples is clearly influenced by pH, as well as in the final extracts. In blood samples preserved with NaF/potassium oxalate, the measured concentrations of cathinone, methcathinone, ethcathinone, mephedrone, and flephedrone declined by ca. 30 % after 2 days of storage at 20 °C [82].

Some groups have studied the metabolic pathways of cathinones [68, 94, 101, 102, 103]. Unlike synthetic cannabinoids, the parent cathinones are detected easily in biological materials and are selected as the target because the unchanged parent drugs are rapidly excreted in urine. Cathinones are ionized in the body, and the reabsorption rate is low in the kidney because of low hydrophobicity. The excretion profile of α-PBP and α-PVP in human urine was determined after an intravenous injection, and the elimination half-life in urine was approximately 12 h. Moreover, the excreted amount in urine was influenced by urinary pH, like a psycho-stimulant [104]. To analyze these drugs in biological materials, it is necessary to remove endogenous substances from each sample and enrich the content of the drug. As shown in Table 3, LLE is usually used for extraction of the drugs from biological materials. The quantification of the metabolites is important to predict the hazardous properties of the metabolites. However, because there are few metabolites marketed, no detailed study about their pharmacological activity or toxicity has been conducted.

In fatal cases, the concentrations of the drugs in blood were: 560–3,300 [72], 272 [105], and 60–1,120 ng/ml [106] for methylone; 1.2–22 [107], 5.1 [108], and 5.5 µg/ml [88] for mephedrone; 55.2 ng/ml for α-PBP [95]; 486 [73] and 654 ng/ml [109] for α-PVP; 180 ng/ml [98] for PV9; 170 [70], 82 [110], 1,200 [74], 440 [75], 17–38 [92], and 700 ng/ml [111] for MDPV.

Conclusions

The number of abusers of synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones has increased remarkably worldwide. The chemical structures of the distributed drugs are skillfully changed so that the drugs may pass through screenings for detection. Simple screening methods are required for detection of these drugs in seized and biological materials. There are currently no commercial kits or devices for the routine screening of these drugs. Colorimetric, immunochemical, and chromatographic methods have been introduced in this review; a suitable method must be chosen for each laboratory. Although various human sample matrices are available for testing, urine and blood are of the first choices. However, many of these drugs, especially unchanged synthetic cannabinoids, exist in urine and blood for only a short period. Therefore, other matrices that can prove the consumption of these drugs, such as hair and saliva, are likely to receive more attention in the future.

Acknowledgments

The authors are thankful to Professors Akira Ishii, Chief Editor, and Osamu Suzuki, Emeritus Chief Editor, Forensic Toxicology, for providing us an opportunity to write this review.

Conflict of Interest

There are no financial or other relations that could lead to a conflict of interest.

Copyright information

© Japanese Association of Forensic Toxicology and Springer Japan 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Akira Namera
    • 1
  • Maho Kawamura
    • 2
  • Akihiro Nakamoto
    • 2
  • Takeshi Saito
    • 3
  • Masataka Nagao
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Forensic Medicine, Institute of Biomedical and Health SciencesHiroshima UniversityHiroshimaJapan
  2. 2.Forensic Science LaboratoryHiroshima Prefectural Police HeadquartersHiroshimaJapan
  3. 3.Department of Emergency and Critical Care MedicineTokai University School of MedicineIseharaJapan