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Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic Cannabinoids On Papers

There have been several cases in the news regarding the presence of synthetic cannabinoids on paper being smuggled into jails and prisons in the United States. The Allegheny County Office of the Medical Examiner has been involved in the analysis of multiple cases. For the first time the laboratory received an analysis request for not only identification of controlled substances, but also for the presence of latent fingerprints. It was unknown if the processing methods used by the latent print unit would interfere with the identification of the controlled substances. This paper shows that DFO and ninhydrin processing will remove some of the synthetic cannabinoids, possibly effecting concentration on the paper, but the substances were still able to be positively identified after processing.

The first synthetic cannabinoid, JWH-018, was identified in Germany in 2008 [1,2]. Since then, abuse has continued throughout the world with significant health impacts [[3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8]]. Synthetic cannabinoids have typically presented as plant material, often damiana, sprayed with a chemical solution containing the synthetic cannabinoid. However, in recent years other forms have begun to appear including vape cartridges and now paper substrates. Paper matrixes have been increasingly encountered in jail and prisons throughout the United States and the United Kingdom. Reports of encounters in the United States with this type of matrix have been reported in Massachusetts, Florida, Arkansas, and the federal prison system [[9], [10], [11], [12], [13]].

In September 2018, the Allegheny County Jail went into lockdown following eleven (11) prison workers becoming ill following possible exposure to synthetic cannabinoids. The Pennsylvania State Prison system also went into full lockdown [14]. The Allegheny County Office of the Medical Examiner analyzed 21 paper samples in 2018 that were positive for a synthetic cannabinoid. Most of these cases were associated with jails or prisons. The synthetic cannabinoids identified include: 5F-ADB, 5F-MDMB-PICA, AMB-FUBINACA, MMB−CHMICA, and CUMYL-4CN-BINACA.

In 2019 a request was made for not only identification of controlled substances on paper evidence, but also for latent print processing. The evidence in question was five pages of resume paper (unknown weight or manufacturer) that had text on them. The Allegheny County Office of the Medical Examiner’s Latent Print Unit processes paper first with DFO (1,8-Diazaflouren-9-one) and then with ninhydrin (2,2-dihydroxyindane-1,3-dione) [15]. It was unknown if processing the paper with these chemicals would interfere with the ability identify controlled substances. The only similar study that could be identified involved the analysis of LSD blotter paper with ninhydrin and physical developer by the Drug Enforcement Administration [16]. This study found that ninhydrin analysis did not interfere with the quantitative or qualitative analysis of LSD, however the use of physical developer had a significant impact.

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