Large‐scale evaluation of ion mobility spectrometry for the rapid detection of synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists in infused papers in prisons

Caitlyn Norman, Brian Mckirdy, Gillian Walker, Pat Dugard, Niamh Nic Daéid, Craig Mckenzie (Lead / Corresponding author)

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)
348 Downloads (Pure)


Synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs), colloquially known as “spice,” are commonly used in prisons and enter establishments via the mail in the form of infused papers. Many prisons use benchtop ion mobility spectroscopy (IMS) instruments to screen mail and seized materials for the presence of SCRAs and other controlled substances. The selectivity and sensitivity of Rapiscan Itemiser ® 3E and Itemiser ® 4DN Ion Trap Mobility Spectroscopy™ (ITMS™) systems were evaluated using 21 SCRA reference standards. Some differences in the SCRA reduced mobility (K 0) values were observed between this study and those reported previously using IMS detection systems, particularly for cumyl and quinolinyl SCRAs (e.g., 5F-PB-22, Cumyl-4CN-BINACA, and 5F-Cumyl-PEGACLONE), although this was found to have little effect at an operational level. Operational reliability of the systems was evaluated by analyzing 392 paper and card samples with known drug content. ITMS™ system results (e.g., detect or nondetect) were in agreement with gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS) analysis in up to 95% of samples tested. Overall, this study found the ITMS™ systems tested to be effective instruments when deployed for the rapid detection of SCRA-infused papers. Used effectively and with up-to-date substance libraries, they will help reduce the supply of SCRAs into prisons and identify emerging threats as they arise. Several emerging SCRAs (5F-MPP-PICA, 5F-EMB-PICA, and 4F-MDMB-BICA) were detected for the first time in Scottish prisons between May and August 2020 as a result of routine monitoring, and all were detected using the ITMS™ systems tested.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)644-663
Number of pages20
JournalDrug Testing and Analysis
Issue number3
Early online date15 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jan 2021


  • forensic chemistry
  • ion mobility spectrometry
  • new psychoactive substances
  • prison
  • synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Analytical Chemistry
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Pharmaceutical Science
  • Spectroscopy


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