UK scientists at Strathclyde and the James Hutton Institute are developing tests for tracing unidentifiable source of the raw materials in designer legal high drugs.

The process could help identify and prosecute manufacturers of designer stimulants, popularly named ivory wave, pure white and NRG-1. These are also sold as bath salts, plant food and incense, which usually mimic the effects of illegally manufactured drugs such as amphetamine, cocaine and ecstasy.

These are thought of as Epsom salts used in a calming bath but are actually synthetic drugs, made to mimic the effects of a cocaine or heroin high.

Using isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) technique, UK researchers have attempted to reveal the course of a drug's manufacturing procedure. The methodology is expected to track the raw material source and gather information on manufacturers of bath salts or so-called designer drugs.

The study was presented at the recent 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), held in Denver.

The new method we have used has enabled us to work backwards and trace the substances back to their starting materials. IRMS measures the relative amounts of an element's different forms; it is successful because these relative amounts are transferred like a fingerprint through the synthesis of the drug, said lead researcher, Dr Oliver Sutcliffe, at the Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences.

It is well known that the availability of these so-called designer drugs can be dangerous. These are illegally procured and the biggest difficulty is that the existence of the active raw ingredients in these is difficult to detect with available drug tests.

The legal status of designer drugs varies around the world but they present many dangers to users and these are borne out by the Home Office's decision to ban the import of bath salts, said Sutcliffe.

Studies are on to develop cutting edge-technology for detecting designer stimulants. These substances produce effects similar to that of illicit recreational drugs but, unlike illegal drugs, they are easily available over the internet or at head shops, convenience stores and gas stations. Many people mistakenly believe that these drugs are safe because they are legal.

In the UK, the bath salts drug is labeled as being not for human consumption and is banned in the country. The term bath salts is used by those who sell the drug as a way of circumventing legislation when supplying it.

The bath salts drug can cause euphoria, paranoia, anxiety and hallucinations. It often contains mephedrone, a synthetic compound structurally related to methcathinone, which is found in Khat, a plant which, like mephedrone itself, is illegal in many countries.

In previous research, the Strathclyde team developed the first pure reference standard for mephedrone, as well as the first reliable liquid chromatography test for the substance, which could be run in a typical law enforcement lab. The team has also developed a comprehensive screening method for 16 known legal high drug variants using conventional gas chromatographic analysis and are developing a semi-quantitative colorimetric test kit for legal highs which can be used by law enforcement at point of seizure, facilitating a more rapid response to these materials.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), too has taken note of the dangers of the assumption of these drugs as legal which it is not. The DEA has announced plans to control these substances.

The DEA has invoked its emergency scheduling authority to temporarily control three of these substances (Mephedrone, 3,4 methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) and Methylone), which are the most commonly found chemicals in designer stimulants marketed as bath salts or plant food.