In a laboratory somewhere in the north of England a distinguished analytical chemist is synthesising illegal drugs using recipes and protocols downloaded from clandestine websites on the internet.

In a laboratory somewhere in the north of England a distinguished analytical chemist is synthesising illegal drugs using recipes and protocols downloaded from clandestine websites on the internet. 

But this is no criminal operation. John Alder, professor of analytical science at the University of Manchester, is working with the full knowledge of the authorities and under strict conditions that require a licence from the Home Office.

Alder and his group in the school of chemical engineering and analytical science, together with colleagues in the university’s school of pharmacy, are less interested in the drugs themselves than in the range of intermediates and side-products that arise from their manufacture. This information is potentially useful to the police, clinicians dealing with drug-users who have become ill, and users themselves, who may not be aware of possibly harmful side-effects of the substances they are buying from the dealer on the street.

’There are three main websites that contain detailed recipes for the manufacture of illegal drugs,’ says Alder. ’By following these recipes and analysing the product we aim to obtain a fingerprint of the various impurities that arise from that particular method of synthesis.’

If a drug is subsequently seized by the police, forensic analysts can take a chemical fingerprint of the substance. If this matches one of the profiles obtained by the Manchester researchers, it should be possible to identify the method used in the drug’s manufacture. This in turn can give the police important leads. ’If you know what chemical compounds are needed to make the drugs, you can start to trace the origins of the supplies,’ says Alder. ’For example, if you need acetic anhydride, there might only be a handful of suppliers, so the police can begin to narrow down potential sources of the starting materials.’

Additionally, the police might know of various clandestine manufacturers’ preferred methods of synthesising drugs. The chemical fingerprint will point to a particular synthetic protocol, enabling the constabulary to draw up a list of suspects.

The identification of by-products might also be useful for the medical profession. It is conceivable that by-products in the drug rather than the drug itself could cause a user to become ill. Swift identification of the impurities contained in a drug would allow clinical staff to formulate treatment efficiently.

Furthermore, agencies working with drug users would be able to warn their clients that certain drugs on the street could contain traces of potentially toxic compounds.

Currently, Alder and his colleagues are examining a class of psychotropic drugs called tryptamines. In nature these occur in certain types of fungus and are present in secretions from some toads. A synthetic tryptamine, 5-methoxy-N,N-diisopropyltryptamine, nicknamed foxy, appears to be growing in popularity as a hallucinogen and mild euphoric.

The Manchester chemists have manufactured foxy from 5-methoxyindole by following a recipe based on the Speeter and Antony method, taken from a website. Using combinations of gas and liquid chromatography and mass spectroscopy, the research team identified around 10 side-products from this particular recipe. ’Clearly these will differ depending on the starting materials, their purity and the method of production,’ says Alder.

This highlights the whole issue of quality control of illegally manufactured drugs. ’At one end of the scale you might have sophisticated manufacturing facilities, such as the pharmaceutical factory in the former Eastern Bloc that turned part of its production to high-grade illegal drugs to import to the West after the fall of communism,’ Alder says. ’On the other hand a makeshift laboratory in someone’s garage is not likely to enjoy a high degree of quality control.’

The main objective of Alder’s work is to develop analytical protocols that can be used by forensic scientists to examine illegal drugs. ’These are complicated analyses,’ he says. ’It is not just a case of pouring something into the machine and getting the answer out. The data need careful and complicated interpretation, and it is this that we are developing.’

The team is continuing to work on foxy using different recipes, and is starting another project to fingerprint ecstasy (3,4-methylenedioxymeth-amphetamine, or MDMA) synthesised from clove oil as the principal starting material.

’It can seem strange that a substance such as clove oil can be the starting point for the manufacture of a recreational drug, but if you look at the ingenuity of some of these clandestine chemists it is incredible,’ says Alder.

Simon Hadlington