Smart drugs or better known as ‘legal highs’ are substances which produce similar effects to illegal drugs (such as cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy) but are not controlled under any drug legislation. These new substances are not yet controlled because there is not enough research about them yet to ban. The products are available in a variety of forms, e.g. some herbal smoking mixes are marketed as legal alternatives to cannabis and consist of plants rich in alkaloids or stimulant substances. On the other hand, some herbal mixtures also contain added synthetic cannabinoids. The plant ingredients serve as “shuttle,” hiding illegal chemicals and allowing them to be transported and marketed through different channels.
Authorities are seeing an increasing use of synthetic drugs which are disguised as bath salts, potpourri, incense, foods of plant origin, and other products. Currently most of these drugs are not illegal because manufacturers are changing the chemical makeup to achieve an alteration wide enough to avoid legal restriction. For example, in many Western European countries, products known as “Spice” and analogous herbal blends are sold as incense not suitable for human consumption; however, they are normally smoked as drugs, much like cannabis. Only recently, a number of countries in Europe, as well as the USA and Canada, have banned the use of these substances. However, the main problem concerning these herbal blends lies in their identification.
A group of Italian researchers has now combined DNA Barcoding, morphology and high-performance liquid chromatography to identify both the plant and the chemical composition of some last-generation legal highs. The combination of morphological and DNA Barcode data revealed a mixture of plants from different families, including aromatic species representatives of Lamiaceae and Turneraceae that are not known to have any 'drug-like' effects. Furthermore the chemical analyses of extracts showed the presence of synthetic cannabinoids indicating that the plant material was indeed used as 'shuttle' for regulated chemicals.
Another very interesting example of creative ways to use DNA Barcoding.