A Portable Solution for the On-scene Identification of Kratom

Thought LeadersZachary LawtonAnalytical ChemistPerkinElmer

In this interview, Zachary Lawton explains the health risks of Kratom and the development of a portable GC-MS solution for the identification of Kratom and other drugs that cannot be identified using traditional colorimetric tests.

What is Kratom and why is it such a big concern for US health officials?

Kratom is a botanical extract that has existed for hundreds of years in Southeast Asia and is now being used as a legal medical supplement in the US. Health officials are concerned about Kratom because the active ingredients are psycho-active compounds which interact with opioid receptors in the brain and produce stimulant-like effects. The supplement has been gaining popularity over the past few years as a legal high and has now started popping up in shops and cafés.

Kratom leaves can be dried and ground up to form a powder, which is often used for medicinal purposes in south asia.Yanawut Suntornkij | Shutterstock

The main concern is that there haven’t been enough clinical trials to fully evaluate all of the positive and negative effects of Kratom, and that is the biggest issue for law enforcement and health officials. There is a need to get ahead of this epidemic and make sure we take steps to protect the general public if needed.

What are the health effects of Kratom? What makes this supplement so addictive?

As Kratom has opioid-life effects, it can be highly addictive and cause withdrawal symptoms in those who use it regularly. Withdrawal symptoms include muscle aches, insomnia, and emotional changes, amongst others.

At low levels, Kratom interacts with the opioid receptors in the brain and produces a pain-killing effect. Some reports say that it induces a feeling of euphoria and has mood enhancement and stimulant properties, but a lot of these reports are anecdotal, so more studies are needed in this area.

Portable GC-MS Identification of Legal Highs

Which analytical techniques are currently used to identify Kratom?

At present, there is no universal or recommended technique for analyzing Kratom. Scientists have used benchtop instruments such as IR and FTIR microscopy, GC-MS and LC-MS to study the compound in the past, but researchers are now looking into portable instruments that will allow law enforcement officers to identify Kratom on-scene.

Why can’t Kratom be identified by colorimetric tests such as the Narcotics Identification Kit (NIK) used by police in the US?

Colorimetric tests have been developed for a wide range of drugs over the past decade. However, the advent of legal highs has led to the emergence of many new compounds that fit into a gray area and do not give a definitive response. Unfortunately, Kratom falls into that category.

The Kratom leaf has twenty different alkaloid compounds overall, and two of these are the alkaloid compounds mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine. It is these two compounds that we’d be looking to identify in a colorimetric test. However, when you analyze the whole plant, there are a lot of secondary interactions that make a simple colorimetric response very hard to acquire with Kratom.

Please describe your recent research, which showed that portable GC/MS could be used for the on-scene identification of mitragynine, the active ingredient in Kratom.

The research concentrated on the potential role of portable GC-MS in new, emerging areas. We specifically looked at narcotic and homeland security applications in order to see if there is an area for portable GC-MS to alleviate some of the problems that commonly occur in a bench-top situation.

We worked with the University of Newhaven to develop a portable technique for analyzing all these different compounds, and Kratom was the hot topic. At the moment, we are just trying to see if GC-MS can make a dent in our knowledge gap and help identify these compounds.

Why was this research significant?

When looking at the current literature, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done on both the medical and clinical side. We hope to see improvements from a lot of different portable technologies, but so far this is the first approach at having a portable technique for Kratom.

There is currently a lot of debate about whether Kratom should be illegal. Do you think that the supplement will be banned? What role will portable GC/MS tools play in the future of this dangerous health supplement?

There have been efforts to ban Kratom before, but all of these have failed. However, last year, the DEA classified Kratom as an opioid. With a formal classification as an opioid, I am unsure where we are going to stand in terms of legality, but the main point is that a lot of clinical testing still needs to be done. If anyone is looking to use Kratom as a supplement, I would definitely say to proceed with caution.

Leaf of the kratom plant.Anucha Cheechang | Shutterstock

How user-friendly are portable GC/MS tools? Do you think that they could be used by law enforcement officers on a day-to-day basis?

We have been working with some law enforcement agencies to bring non-technical operators into the research process and work alongside them. Everything about the instrument was designed so that a non-scientist could carry out the analysis.  

It is a very simplified user interface and it is only thirty-two lbs, meaning that it is light enough to be picked up and used on-scene. The fully automated library makes the analysis really simple. It only takes about five to ten minutes for a first-time user to start running samples.

What are the next steps for your research?

The next step is to continue working with different police officers in this space, as well as adopters. We want to see if the system we have developed has real potential for solving the issues surrounding Kratom and portable technologies in general.

What do you hope to learn from Pittcon 2019? Have you noticed any trends in the forensics space at this year’s event?

This is my first Pittcon, so I am very excited to be here. I am looking forward to seeing a wide range of environmental and forensic applications. It seems that portable instruments are becoming more and more common in forensics, so I am looking forward to meeting with other scientists and discussing what we can do to remove the stigma from portable instruments.

Where can readers find more information?

About Zachary Lawton

Zachary Lawton headshotZachary Lawton graduated from Illinois State University in 2014.  He received his M.S. from Illinois State University in 2016 studying portable mass spectrometer systems and forensic science applications with Prof. Christopher Mulligan.  Lawton joined the portable GC/MS team at PerkinElmer Inc. in 2017 and is currently the Applications Scientist for Portable GC/MS systems.

Lawton’s current research interests focus on creating rapid in-field analytical methods for faster response time to public and environmental health issues.  Using innovative sample extraction technologies with portable chemical detection systems to identify chemicals of interest across diverse fields of forensics, industrial waste, personal care products, agriculture and environmental monitoring.

About Pittcon

Pittcon® is a registered trademark of The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy, a Pennsylvania non-profit organization. Co-sponsored by the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh, Pittcon is the premier annual conference and exposition on laboratory science.

Proceeds from Pittcon fund science education and outreach at all levels, kindergarten through adult. Pittcon donates more than a million dollars a year to provide financial and administrative support for various science outreach activities including science equipment grants, research grants, scholarships and internships for students, awards to teachers and professors, and grants to public science centers, libraries and museums.

Visit pittcon.org for more information.


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  1. Bryce A Bryce A United States says:

    I hope it isn’t banned. It’s the only thing that’s helped me stay off of opiates. I can’t imagine kratom tea being worse than heroin. It’s good to see research being done instead of an outright ban. It’s nice to be back in school and working again after a few years of opiate addiction. I think that the fact that it’s so much weaker than heroin and pain pills really helps.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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