Lindsay Glickberg, shown here in her laboratory at Sam Houston State University, recently won the Emerging Forensic Scientist Award from the Forensic Science Foundation for her work on the active substances in bath salts. She and her supervisor Sarah Kerrigan have completed a major look into cathinones, the dangerous substances within bath salts. (Credit: Sam Houston State University)

Bath salts appeared in the United States in 2009, on convenience store counters and head shop shelves. The new amphetamines were synthesized to fly under the radar of authorities, which they did for more than a year. Even after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency banned many of them in 2011, chemists played a cat-and-mouse game with authorities as they improvised new molecules to get past the reach of the law.

Now scientists at Sam Houston State University have completed one of the most thorough looks into the nitty-gritty workings of these illicit drugs—and the work netted a doctoral student a major award for her part on the project.

The latest Sam Houston State investigation, published in the Journal of Chromatography B, looked at 22 of the most common synthetic cathinones, the active part of bath salts, and found varying levels of chemical stability.

The work provides a way to determine concentrations of the chemical in blood and urine, for use in impaired driving, sexual assault and death investigations, according to the team. 

Gas chromatography analysis, a standard chemistry procedure, sometimes thermally degrades the substances. A breakthrough was the Sam Houston State team’s use of liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry to understand what makes the molecules tick.

Lindsay Glicksberg, a doctoral student, looked into variables including acidity, temperature and molecular structure, and how they impact stability of the chemical in the body. These variables also include the amount of time that elapses from collection to analysis, use of refrigeration, effects of routine sampling processes, and other factors.

“Many factors affect the stability of a drug, especially time and storage temperature, and the project was designed to assess these factors,” said Glicksberg.

The work is the culmination of a National Institute of Justice grant secured in 2013 by Sarah Kerrigan, the chair of forensic science at Sam Houston State and also the director of the school’s Institute for Forensic Research, Training and Innovation.

The in-depth look into the bath salts’ properties was needed, considering they are still being used by people across the country, even if they are gradually being banned, said Kerrigan.

“Cathinones are particularly unstable,” said Kerrigan, adding that the work was foundational in understanding these variations on a drug theme. “We were able to identify characteristics of the molecule that influence its stability … In theory, you should be able to be predict the stability of future drugs.”

“They’re all structurally similar to amphetamine and methamphetamine—they all have that ketone group, and the ring structure, and the amine,” added Glicksberg. “But what makes them different from each other is what they’re adding on to the ring, or the amine, to differentiate the different ones.”

For this deep dive into cathinones, Glicksberg was honored with the Emerging Forensic Scientist Award from the Forensic Science Foundation, a part of the American Academy of Forensic Science. All five years of Glicksberg’s doctoral work was done on cathinones. She told Forensic Magazine she plans to graduate with her degree late this year, and up next is a look into the post-mortem distribution of these drugs—and a planned graduation from the doctorate program later this year.

Kerrigan, who has previously worked in various forensic roles including as the state laboratory director in New Mexico, said Sam Houston State is continuing its look into other new emerging drugs—including kratom and the desomorphine known as Krokodil, two drugs that have caused rampant buzz over the last year.