It is known as the synthetic street drug that turns its users into ‘zombies’ in a matter of minutes and can even cause psychosis and death.
Now, scientists at the University of Bath have developed a pocket-sized device that can instantly detect the presence of ‘Spice’, also known as ‘false weed’.
The small, portable machine ignites in the presence of the illegal substance if it has been soaked in paper or cloth, a common method for smuggling contraband into prisons.
Experts believe the device will be handed out to police officers and prison guards to check for Spice “in a few months” once it has been authorized for use.
With more engineering, scientists believe it will also be possible to detect all types of synthetic drugs, which are produced chemically in a laboratory.
The pocket-sized device, invented by scientists at the University of Bath, ignites in the presence of illegal drugs soaked in paper or cloth. Machine detects Spice with 95 percent accuracy, results show
How does it work?
The device works by detecting the fluorescent properties that make up the central part of the synthetic cannabinoid molecule.
When the device touches a material suspected of containing absorbed Spice, it first identifies the material it is on and then tests for the presence of Spice.
An “alarm” for Spice appears as a bright ring of LEDs, visible to the operator to alert them to the presence of the substance.
The higher the concentration of Spice, the brighter the LEDs will be.
Scientists from the University of Bath describe their invention in an article published in the journal Analytic chemistry.
The machine detects Spice with 95 percent accuracy, according to its results.
“Our device is really innovative,” said Professor Christopher Pudney, who led the research in the university’s Department of Life Sciences.
“It’s battery-powered, ultra-portable, low-cost, and delivers instant results that anyone can interpret.”
Spice, which was made illegal in the UK in 2016, can be fatal and often causes serious side effects such as psychosis, stroke and seizures.
The common street drug causes harm particularly among homeless communities, but is also routinely smuggled into prisons.
In many cases, Spice use has proven lethal, both for users inside and outside of prison.
The substance was implicated in almost half of unnatural deaths between 2015 and 2020 in English and Welsh prisons, according to a recent report by Middlesex University.
Spice takes the form of a liquid and can be sprayed onto plant material that is smoked, providing an experience similar to using real marijuana.
But when it is smuggled into prisons, it tends to be in pure liquid form, illicitly soaked in paper or fabric, such as clothing.
The new device works by detecting the fluorescent properties that form the central part of the synthetic cannabinoid molecule.
Professor Christopher Pudney (pictured) from the University of Bath called the device “truly innovative”.
“Normally Spice enters prisons in paper form and once inside it is divided into smaller sheets of paper in prison and then sold,” Professor Pudney said.
“The paper is crumpled, inserted into a vaporizer and smoked, so detection in the prison environment is incredibly difficult.”
The new device works by detecting the fluorescent properties that form the central part of the synthetic cannabinoid molecule, called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
“The nuclei of molecules give back some specific light energies when we shine bright UV light on them,” Professor Pudney told MailOnline.
“We detect these energies and that allows us to identify that the material is soaked in something suspicious.”
When the device touches a material, it first identifies the material it is on and then tests for the presence of Spice.
“We illuminate the sample with ultraviolet light and detect how it interacts with the material,” said the academic.
If the material tests positive, an “alarm” for Spice appears as a bright ring of LEDs, visible to the operator to alert them to the presence of the substance.
And the higher the concentration of Spice, the brighter the LEDs shine.
Spice is a brand of synthetic marijuana that often looks like real marijuana, usually packaged in colored aluminum foil (pictured).
A homeless man extends his hand to show a spice he has bought and intends to consume (file photo)
According to Professor Pudney, if a material can absorb a liquid, the device can analyze it for the presence of Spice.
“Actually, even if the surface does not absorb liquid, for example plastic, we can detect drying in Spice,” he said.
“But the main smuggling routes are still paper and cloth.”
Recently, Spice has also been added to vape liquids, putting unsuspecting smokers at risk.
Generally, smokers are tricked into smoking Spice when they have purchased their vape liquid from a distributor and believe that they are smoking vape liquid containing THC or cannabis oil.
However, even when hidden in this way, the new device can easily detect the drug.
“We can detect Spice easily by simply opening a vaporizer and testing the mouthpiece,” Professor Pudney said.
Developed with funding from the UK government’s Defense and Security Accelerator (DASA) fund, the device should be ready for mass production this autumn.
What is spice? The harmful class of synthetic drug that turns its users into ‘zombies’
Spice is a class of synthetic drug that is supposed to mimic the effects of cannabis on the brain.
It was banned in the UK in 2016 and is also banned in many European countries because its actual composition is different from the real thing.
Some experts believe that it may be 100 times more potent than cannabis and therefore more harmful.
Harmful side effects include increased heart rate, seizures, psychosis, kidney failure, and stroke.
It has been linked to deaths in Australia and Russia, while in 2015 it was blamed for taking five university students to hospital and leaving two at Lancaster University in a critical condition.
A Mail investigation found that some of the most prolific users of the drug are secondary school pupils as young as 13, who smoke it before school and during lunchtime.
A 14-year-old boy in Stockport, Greater Manchester, died in 2018 after taking Spice at a sleepover.