Tania M. G. Salerno, Paola Donato, Giampietro Frison, Luca Zamengo and Luigi Mondello.


Front. Chem., 24 July 2020 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fchem.2020.00624

The increasing number of synthetic molecules constantly introduced into the illicit drug market poses a great demand in terms of separation and identification power of the analytical tools. Therefore, forensic laboratories are challenged to develop multiple analytical techniques, allowing for the reliable analysis of illicit drugs. This goal is accomplished by means of spectroscopy measurements, usually after a separation step, consisting of liquid (LC) or gas (GC) chromatography.

Within the wide range of hyphenated techniques, the coupling of GC to Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) provides a powerful identification tool, also allowing discriminating between isobars and isomers. In this research, the effectiveness of GC-FTIR is demonstrated, in achieving structure elucidation of 1-pentyl-3-(1-naphthoyl)indole, commonly known as JWH-018, a synthetic cannabinoid identified as component of illegal “incense blends.” Moreover, solid deposition FTIR enabled for boosting the sensitivity of the technique, over conventional flow (light pipe) cells, scaling down the limit of identification to the ng scale.

Calibration curves for JWH-018 standard were obtained in the 20–1,000 ng range, and the limit of detection and limit of quantification were assessed as equal to 4.3 and 14.3 ng, respectively. Finally, the proposed methodology has been adopted for the identification of active principles in a real “street” sample seized by the law enforcement, consisting of an herbal matrix containing four different synthetic cannabinoids belonging to the JWH class.

The correct identification of such compounds, with an excellent degree of similarity, demonstrates the usefulness of the proposed approach for reliable analysis of illicit drugs in forensic samples, as a viable alternative to the widespread used mass spectrometry techniques.