UAB students work to identify the next new ‘legal high’

Students in UAB crime research camp document online trade in dangerous substances that skirt the law.

Illegal drug substitutes are being sold online, thinly disguised as plant food, but students in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Crime Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program are not fooled.

“Even though it says ‘not for human consumption’ you notice immediately that the verbiage on the websites is done with a wink and a nod,” says Missy Toms, a rising senior at Northern Kentucky University spending part of her summer in UAB’s Crime REU camp.

“They market this as plant food, but they talk about how happy your plants will be and how not to overdose your plants, so you know this is not for plants,” Toms says.

Toms is one of only 12 students nationwide selected for the camp, which gives students real-life research experience in forensic science, criminal justice and computer forensics under the supervision of Elizabeth Gardner, Ph.D., an assistant professor in UAB’s Department of Justice Sciences.

Toms’ first task: Order drugs online.

“I learned quickly that it is easier to get these things than I ever would have thought. They’re everywhere, they’re popular and there are dozens of different types you can get,” says Toms.

“What scares me is that you have no idea which drugs or how much of them are in these packets,” says Gardner. “Your chance of dying from an accidental overdose increases substantially when you use pharmaceuticals that are not legitimate. Just because it is legal and you can order it online does not mean it cannot kill you.”

Toms and Gardner ordered and received five plant food purchases. They mixed each with hexane or methanol to determine if it would more likely be ingested or inhaled. They use a special instrument, a mass selective detector, to fragment the chemicals and compare the pieces to a library of data. If no match is found, then analysis continues.

“If someone goes to the hospital and says ‘I ordered this online,’ the doctors may have no idea what it is and how best to treat the person,” says Gardner. “We want to develop a reference list for poison control and hospitals that will inform them that items purchased from X website contain these chemicals.”

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