It’s known as the synthetic street drug that turns users into ‘zombies’ within minutes – and can even lead to 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 ‘fake weed’.
The small hand-held machine lights up in the presence of the illegal substance if it’s been soaked into paper or fabric – a common method for smuggling into prisons.
Experts think the device will be handed out to police officers and prison guards to check for Spice ‘within months’, once it’s been cleared for rollout.
With further engineering, the scientists think it will also able to detect all types of synthetic drugs, which are chemically produced in a lab.
The pocket-sized device, invented by scientists at the University of Bath, lights up in the presence of illegal drugs soaked into paper or fabric. The machine detects Spice with 95 per cent accuracy, according to results
Scientists at the University of Bath have described their invention in a paper published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.
The machine detects Spice with 95 per cent accuracy, according to their results.
‘Our device is truly ground-breaking,’ Professor Christopher Pudney who led the research at the university’s Department of Life Sciences.
‘It’s battery-operated, ultra-portable, low-cost and gives instant results that anyone can interpret.’
Spice – which was made illegal in the UK in 2016 – can be fatal and often causes severe side effects, including psychosis, stroke and seizures.
The common street drug particularly causes harm among homeless communities, but it’s also routinely smuggled into prisons.
In many cases, Spice use has proved lethal – for users both in and out of jail.
The substance was involved in almost half of non-natural deaths between 2015 and 2020 in English and Welsh prisons, according to a recent report from Middlesex University.
Spice takes the form of the liquid and can be sprayed on plant material that’s smoked – giving a similar experience to using real marijuana.
But when it is smuggled into prisons it tends to be in its pure liquid form, illicitly soaked into paper or fabric such as clothing.
The new device works by detecting the fluorescent properties that make up the core part of the synthetic cannabinoid molecule
Professor Christopher Pudney (pictured) at the University of Bath called the device ‘truly ground-breaking’
‘Typically, Spice enters prisons on paper, and once it’s inside, it’s divided into smaller paper sheets in the prison and then sold,’ Professor Pudney said.
‘The paper is crumpled up and inserted into a vape pen and smoked, so detection in the prison environment is incredibly challenging.’
The new device works by detecting the fluorescent properties that make up the core part of the synthetic cannabinoid molecule, which is called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
‘The core of the molecules give back some specific energies of light when we shine a 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 suspect.’
When the device touches a material, it first identifies the material it’s on and then tests for the presence of Spice.
‘We shine a UV light on the sample and we detect how that interacts with the material,’ the academic said.
If the material tests positive, an ‘alarm’ for Spice shows up as a glowing ring of LEDs, visible to the operator to alert them to the presence of the substance.
And the greater the concentration of Spice, the brighter the LEDs glow.
Spice is a brand of synthetic marijuana that often looks like real marijuana, typically packaged in colourful foil (pictured)
A homeless man holds out his hand to show some spice he has bought and is intending to consume (file photo)
According to Professor Pudney, if a material can soak up a liquid, it can be potentially analysed by the device for the presence of Spice.
‘In reality, even if the surface doesn’t absorb liquid – e.g. plastic – we can detect the dried on Spice,’ he said.
‘But the major smuggling routes are still paper and fabric.’
Recently, Spice has also been added to liquids in vapes, putting unsuspecting smokers at risk.
Generally, smokers are duped into smoking Spice when they have bought their vape liquid from a dealer and believe they are smoking vape liquid containing THC or cannabis oil.
Even when hidden this way, however, the drug can be easily detected by the new device.
‘We can spot Spice easily simply by opening a vape and testing the mouth filter,’ said Professor Pudney.
Developed with funding from the UK government’s Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) fund, the device should be ready for mass production this autumn.