Health Illicit drugs show their true colours

Illicit drugs show their true colours

It’s scary when young people take drugs without even knowing what they are. What’s scarier is the experts often don’t know either.

As the debate about pill testing at music festivals continues, researchers from the University of Technology Sydney are developing colour tests to quickly identify suspected substances—before they do any harm.

Over 800 synthetic drugs have emerged in the last decade and authorities are struggling to keep up.

It means existing tests cannot always provide an accurate reading, especially when more than one substance is involved, or where testing is done in field locations such as airports or music festivals.

One colour test developed by the team at UTS allows police or customs officials to easily spot a new class of drugs known as synthetic cathinones.

These cannot currently be identified outside a laboratory, allowing them to be disguised and smuggled into Australia as fertilizer, bath salts or plant food.

The test has been packaged up as a patented kit and went on sale in Europe last year.

Other work is focused on developing a colour test for NBMOe compounds, a powerful and dangerous hallucinogen responsible for numerous deaths.

UTS Professor Shanlin Fu says the team hopes to create a “multiplex test” to identify a whole range of substances at once.

“The colour test methods developed at UTS focus on detecting classes of drugs rather than individual ones, which is beneficial for pill testing at music festivals,” Professor Fu says.

“We aim to reveal if dangerous drugs … are present in pills even if the exact chemical entities or structures are unknown.”

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