GCMS carousel with vials

New Psychoactive Substances (NPS)

A recent challenge for toxicologists has been the emergence of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS):

  • These drugs replicate the effects of illegal drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis
  • Became available to buy legally online and in 'headshops' around 2008
  • Controlled by 'The Psychoactive Substances Act' that came into force on 26 May 2016
  • Hundreds of NPS have been identified

Synthetic Cathinones

  • The most common NPS detected.
  • Derived from the naturally occurring drug cathinone.
  • Stimulant drugs - similar effects to cocaine/amphetamines.

Cathinones seen in post-mortem casework

  • Mephedrone
  • Methylone
  • Ethylone
  • Butylone
  • 4-Methylethcathinone (4-MEC)
  • Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV)
  • α-Pyrrolidinopentiophenone (α-PVP)

Synthetic Cannabinoids (SCRAs) - AKA 'Spice'

  • Act in a similar way to Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) - the main active ingredient in cannabis
  • Binds to same cannabinoid receptors in the brain
  • Thought to me more potent than THC - higher potential for overdose

SCRAs seen in casework

  • 5F-PB-22
  • 5F-Cumyl-PINACA


“A specific form of recreational drug use defined by the use of any combination of drugs that includes three specific drugs (‘chems’) before or during sex by MSM (Men who have Sex with Men)”

There is a concern that the use of networking or 'hook-up' apps has made drug use more visible, acceptable and even fashionable! There is also a worry that this drug use is becoming increasingly problematic. Drug treatment centres report being overwhelmed by the number of men seeking help. In our laboratory, we have identified a noticeable increase in the number of deaths in which 'chemsex drugs' were detected.