15 Jun 2017

Legal high detection and the Quest ATR | Spectroscopy Solutions

Narcotic and legal high detection using FTIR spectroscopy is an established technique. We have an application note on the analysis of cocaine and cannabis using the Quest ATR spectrometer accessory and even an older application note on various drugs being analyzed using the Golden Gate ATR spectrometer accessory. Watch Mia's work at Staffordshire University in the video below.


We recently leant our Quest ATR spectrometer accessory to Staffordshire University, so that they may further their research into narcotic/legal high identification through presumptive and confirmatory testing.

If you, or anyone you know, are currently studying and would like to collaborate with Specac to enhance your CV, email us at collab@specac.co.uk and tell us how you would like to take part in our Education Business Partnership.

Legal high identification using ATR FTIR spectroscopy

Mia Abbott, an MSci student of Forensic Science at Staffordshire University, performed confirmatory testing of various unmarked drug samples using GCMS and ATR FTIR spectroscopy. 

We visited Staffordshire University to talk to Mia about her studies, life at Staffordshire University and her experiences using the Quest ATR spectroscopy accessory

Read the application Mia worked on in collaboration with Specac to delve deeper into her findings.

Read about Mia's work analyzing narcotics with Specac

In an interview with Select Science, Mia explained her 6 week placement at Staffordshire Police over the summer break and how the local police force had told her that mephedrone was a problem in the Staffordshire area. Mia had intended on analyzing legal highs and was more than happy to assist in developing new and effective methods for the testing of drugs, with a special focus on detecting mephedrone.


New psychoactive substances and, in particular, mephedrone are a huge problem, Mia told Select Science.

Drug detection using the Quest ATR spectrometer accessory

Staffordshire Police Force provided Mia with 12 unidentified white powders, collected from the amnesty bin at 'V Fest', a music festival in the local area. None of the samples contained mephedrone, unfortunately. However, Mia was able to identify a wide range of interesting samples including cocaine and ketamine. What's more, she also discovered various cutting agents, including levamisole (which is a cow de-wormer!).

When asked about her testing methods, Mia told Select Science that ATR FTIR spectroscopic analysis of the drug samples provided very fast results when analyzing the various narcotic samples. She also mentioned that, because no particular preparation was required, samples could be reused after analysis with the Quest ATR accessory. These were two advantages of the Quest ATR FTIR accessory over GCMS analysis.

I like FTIR because it was fast... The (Quest) ATR was brilliant for the fact that it didn’t require sample preparation, which was a major advantage over the GCMS.

As I had limited amounts of each sample, it meant that I could prioritize the FTIR and retrieve the sample from it for reuse, unlike the GCMS, where, once it was dissolved in the methanol, it was hard to retrieve it again.

Read Mia's Select Science interview on presumptive drug testing here.

If you want more information on using the Quest ATR for FTIR analysis, request a free price estimate and demonstration.

FTIR spectroscopy – a drug detection essential 

It is almost impossible to confirm what exactly is in a white powder simply by looking at it. MDMA, ketamine, cocaine, mephedrone... the list seems endless. Legal highs are even more problematic, as their chemical composition is altered ever so slightly, so that they may circumvent the law. It is therefore more essential than ever to utilize cutting-edge analytical techniques when establishing what a suspected stimulant contains.


The Scientific Working Group for the Analysis of Seized Drugs (SWGDRUG) considers FTIR spectroscopy a 'Category A' technique due to its high discriminating power (SWGDRUG Recommendations Edition, 6.1, 2013-11-01 – www.swgdrug.org).

FTIR spectroscopy is fast and can be entirely non-destructive to the sample. Therefore law enforcement officers and hospital staff can opt to use this method, even if they do not have time for or expertise in complex analytical techniques.

Read our article Fast and simple identification of legal highs using FTIR spectroscopy, for more information on spectroscopy and legal high detection.

Check out #SpectroscopySolutions to discover more spectroscopy analysis applications.