Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists in Prisons
: Detection and Drug Market Evolution

  • Caitlyn Norman

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs), colloquially known as “spice” or “K2”, are infused into papers and are of particular concern in prison settings where they are commonly vaped. Qualitative and quantitative methods for SCRAinfused papers were developed using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) with qualitative confirmation by ultra high pressure liquid chromatography with photodiode array and quadrupole time of flight mass spectrometry detection (UPLC-PDA-QToF-MS). Non-judicial paper samples seized from the Scottish prisons between June 2018 and April 2021 were analysed to determine the SCRAs circulating in the prisons and examine the evolution of the SCRA compounds over time. A clear change in SCRA prevalence was observed over time with international legislation, particularly in producer countries, being one of the largest drivers of change in the market. The efficacy of Rapiscan Itemiser® 3E and Itemiser® 4DN ion trap mobility spectrometer™ (ITMS™) systems for the rapid detection of SCRAs was examined using 23 SCRA reference standards and up to 423 seized paper samples. The ITMS™ systems tested were found to be effective instruments when deployed for the rapid detection of SCRA-infused papers with an up to 95% agreement with GCMS analysis. ITMS™ testing results from the use of Rapiscan Itemiser® 3E ITMS™ instruments in Scottish prisons were compared to different datasets considered measures of drug use in Scottish prisons. The correlation of ITMS™ testing data with other drug-related statistics recorded by the SPS provides only limited support that the use of the ITMS™ instruments for screening has reduced the number of drug-related emergency callouts. Overall, the in situ use of ITMS™ instruments in prisons in combination with a near-real time laboratory-based programme can be used as an early warning system for new compounds emerging on the illicit market and can reduce at least some of the harms associated with their use in the prisons.
Date of Award2021
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorCraig McKenzie (Supervisor) & Niamh Nic Daeid (Supervisor)

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