More than one ton of MDMA was seized in Sydney earlier this year and it has been described as one of the largest drug raids in Australian history. According to a Daily Mail Australia article, the MDMA was seized by Australian Border Force officers early in 2020, after they detected an irregularity within a shipping container from South Korea. Inside the container, police found 648 plastic tubs labelled as tile adhesive. Of the 648 tubs, 176 of them were presumptively tested positive to the presence of MDMA. Each tub contained approximately six kilograms of MDMA powder. The total weight of the substance seized from the shipment was 1,053 kilograms with a street value believed to be more than A$200million.
The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse describes 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) as a synthetic drug that alters mood and perception (awareness of surrounding objects and conditions). The website notes that MDMA was initially popular in the nightclub scene and at all-night dance parties (“raves”), but the drug now affects a broader range of people who more commonly call the drug Ecstasy or Molly. The popular nickname Molly (slang for “molecular”) often refers to the supposedly “pure” crystalline powder form of MDMA, usually sold in capsules. High doses of MDMA can affect the body’s ability to regulate temperature. This can lead to a spike in body temperature that can occasionally result in liver, kidney, heart failure or even death.
Drugs sold as ecstasy in the market may not contain any methylenedioxymethamphetamine; they can be a mixture of amphetamine, paramethoxyamphetamine (PMA), ketamine, NBOMe, synthetic cathinones or other substances. The Alcohol and Drug Foundation reports that some pills sold as ecstasy may only have a small amount of MDMA or none at all. Other drugs and ‘fillers’ are often used instead.
Detection of MDMA in lower concentrations with standard FTIR and Raman spectroscopies has been challenging. However, now there are handheld analyzers that utilize Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS), which can help law enforcement agencies detect these lower drug concentrations (1 – 10 wt%) in the field by addressing the conventional Raman limitations.
SERS is an analytical technique where molecules of a substance are first adsorbed onto the surfaces of nanostructures such as nanoparticles or roughened metal surfaces. The surfaces are typically gold and/or silver. These adsorbed molecules can then show an enhanced Raman scattering signal when illuminated with the laser used in a typical Raman spectrometer. This enhanced signal can be several orders of magnitude larger than a “normal” Raman signal, thus allowing for the detection of low concentrations of illicit drugs in mixtures and pills.(See the Gemini Analyzer with LowDoseID for detection of low concentration illicit drugs white paper for more specifics.)
With low concentrations of very toxic drugs becoming increasingly common, this technology is a valuable addition to the analytical detection and identification toolbox of law enforcement and border protection.
Download the white paper: Gemini Analyzer with LowDoseID for detection of low concentration illicit drugs