Newly Emerging Drugs of Abuse and Their Detection Methods

An ACLPS Critical Review

Li Liu, MD, PhD; Sarah E. Wheeler, PhD; Raman Venkataramanan, PhD; Jacqueline A. Rymer, MT(ASCP); Anthony F. Pizon, MD; Michael J. Lynch, MD; Kenichi Tamama, MD, PhD


Am J Clin Pathol. 2018;149(2):105-116. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Objectives Illicit drug abuse has reached an epidemic level in the United States. Drug overdose has become the leading cause of injury-related deaths since 2008 due to the recent surge of opioid overdose by heroin, controlled prescription drugs, and nonmethadone synthetic opioids. Synthetic designer drugs such as synthetic cathinones ("bath salts") and synthetic cannabinoids ("Spice" and "K2") continue to emerge and attract recreational users.

Methods The emergence of new drugs of abuse poses a steep challenge for clinical toxicology laboratories. Limited information about the emerging drugs and their metabolism, "rebranding" of the illicit drugs, and a lack of Food and Drug Administration-approved screening methods for these drugs contribute to this difficulty. Here we review detection methods that can aid in identifying emerging drugs of abuse

Results One promising approach is the utilization of untargeted drug screening by mass spectrometry. Historically, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry has been the gold standard.

Conclusions Liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography-high-resolution mass spectrometry offer improved detection capability of new drugs with simplified sample preparation, making it the new standard.