Infrared Spectroscopy: The Science Behind Festival Drug Testing

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In a 2018 published study conducted in Australia, it was claimed that approximately 75% of festival goers take some form of recreational drug. Following several drug-related deaths at UK festivals over the summer, more festivals, such as Bestival, are looking at employing MAST (Multi-Agency Safety Testing).

MAST testing was developed by The Loop, a non-profit organisation. It allows the consumer to decide whether to use the substance they’ve purchased by providing information on the concentration of the main substituent within the drug sample, as well as what other substances are present. For example, testers have found drug samples which are four times stronger than usual, as well as those which have been cut with harmful substances, such as plaster and other drugs, like N-ethyl Pentylone. This is commonly found in drugs containing MDMA and causes psychosis and insomnia. Festival goers can check their drugs by simply submitting a small sample to be analysed using spectroscopic techniques. Results can be obtained and relayed back to a festival goer quite swiftly. They can then make an informed choice as to their use of the drug without any risk of legal action, as The Loop works with local police forces to ensure the potential drug user’s anonymity.

The Loop uses Infrared (IR) spectroscopy to view a drug’s ‘chemical fingerprint’. The idea behind IR spectroscopy is that different wavelengths of light are absorbed by specific atom groups which have varying properties within a molecule. Different functional groups absorb different wavelengths of light, so by passing wavelengths of light through a sample, a detector can register how much light is being absorbed by the molecule. The absence of light at a particular wavelength identified by the detector results in a signal which can be visualised on an IR spectrum. The light absorption allows cross-referencing with where the peaks should be, comparing the analysed sample to a pure sample, allowing for unexpected peaks to be investigated further. This process can be done in minutes, and the device used to gain these results is the size of a briefcase, making it ideal for festival testing.

However, IR spectroscopy has its limitations. It’s only useful if the drug’s spectrum is already held within a database, and for some newer drugs the spectra are unknown. Meanwhile, spectrum peaks may correspond to multiple different functional groups and there may be overlap in peaks, potentially interfering with coherent reading of the results.

IR spectroscopy also cannot be used to estimate drug concentration, as it only gives information on other substances present in the drug. To estimate concentration, another testing method is used. The sample is weighed, crushed and dissolved in methanol. Any inactive substances, such as cutting agents and dyes, remain solid while the active drug dissolves. The sample is then filtered so that only the solution remains, and a concentration can be estimated by reweighing the sample afterwards. This is a very low-tech but reliable method.

No spectroscopic method can provide all the data. However, increased application can increase the test’s reliability to predict a sample’s various properties. A notable lab technique is Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, which uses data from the interaction of the nuclei of an atom within the molecule with a magnetic field to form specific signals. Using these signals, a likely structure can be suggested, and confirmed using IR spectroscopy. The current issue with using NMR for festival drug testing is that the machinery for it is too large to transport.

Festival drug testing isn’t perfect, but the work that The Loop carries out may be viewed as a welcome addition to a more informed approach to festival drug use.

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