Forensic electrochemistry: the electroanalytical sensing of synthetic cathinone-derivatives and their accompanying adulterants in "legal high" products

Analyst. 2014 Jan 21;139(2):389-400. doi: 10.1039/c3an01985c.


The production and abuse of new psychoactive substances, known as "legal highs" which mimic traditional drugs of abuse is becoming a global epidemic. Traditional analytical methodologies exist which can provide confirmatory analysis but there is a requirement for an on-the-spot analytical screening tool that could be used to determine whether a substance, or sample matrix contains such legal, or formally "legal highs". In this paper the electrochemical sensing of (±)-methcathinone and related compounds at a range of commercially available electrode substrates is explored. We demonstrate for the first time that this class of "legal highs" are electrochemically active providing a novel sensing protocol based upon their electrochemical oxidation. Screen-printed graphite sensing platforms are favoured due to their proven ability to be mass-produced providing large numbers of reliable and reproducible electrode sensing platforms that preclude the requirement of surface pre-treatment such as mechanical polishing as is the case in the use of solid/re-usable electrode substrates. Additionally they hold potential to be used on-site potentially being the basis of an on-site legal high screening device. Consequently the electroanalytical sensing of (±)-methcathinone (3a), (±)-4′-methylmethcathinone [3b, 4-MMC, (±)-mephedrone] and (±)-4′-methyl-N-ethylcathinone (3c, 4-MEC) is explored using screen-printed sensing platforms with the effect of pH explored upon the analytical response with their analytical efficiency evaluated towards the target legal highs. Interesting at pH values below 6 the voltammetric response quantitatively changes from that of an electrochemically irreversible response to that of a quasi-reversible signature which can be used analytically. It is demonstrated for the first time that the electroanalytical sensing of (±)-methcathinone (3a), (±)-mephedrone (3b) and 4-MEC (3c) are possible with accessible linear ranges found to correspond to 16–200 μg mL(−1) for 3a (at pH 12) and 16–350 μg mL(−1) for both 3b and 3c in pH 2, with limits of detection (3σ) found to correspond to 44.5, 39.8 and 84.2 μg mL(−1) respectively. Additionally adulterants that are commonly incorporated into cathinone legal highs are electrochemically explored at both pH 2 and 12.

MeSH terms

  • Alkaloids / analysis*
  • Alkaloids / chemistry*
  • Counterfeit Drugs / analysis*
  • Counterfeit Drugs / chemistry*
  • Electrochemistry / instrumentation*
  • Electrodes
  • Forensic Sciences / methods*
  • Graphite / chemistry
  • Psychotropic Drugs / analysis
  • Psychotropic Drugs / chemistry


  • Alkaloids
  • Counterfeit Drugs
  • Psychotropic Drugs
  • cathinone
  • Graphite