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Illicit-drug impurities as candidates for synthesis route-specific markers

Forensic Chemistry – Illicit Drugs


Synthetic drugs-of-abuse manufacturing, trafficking and use is a severe problem, both locally and worldwide. The Netherlands has become a major player in the worldwide synthetic drug production and distribution with an estimated annual trade value of 18,9 billion Euro. Dutch criminals are global leaders in the synthetic drugs industry. Consequently, synthetic drug use in the Netherlands is increasing and synthetic drugs are being considered  as a more or less common phenomenon in the mainstream party and festival scene. Most abundant synthetic drugs are MDMA and amphetamine. With legislation put in place to control pre-cursors, clandestine drug manufacturers became more creative in synthesis routes using various pre-precursors that are more easy to obtain or to transport.1
Impurities in the end-product can provide valuable tactical forensic information for batch origin and comparison. When these impurities are specific for a certain synthesis-route, they could also be used as a marker for the precursor used in the production process.2-4 In this way, retrospective analysis of already present GC-MS data from forensic laboratories can give valuable insights about the popularity of certain synthesis routes over time.5,6

Goal of this literature thesis is to create an overview of the most important and recent synthesis routes for the most common synthetic drugs with their associated impurities. Important parameters to assess are those describing their usability for a retrospective data-mining approach on GC-MS data, such as yield/concentration in end-product, selectivity for a certain synthesis route and detectability in a general GC-MS screening. Other useful information includes molecular mass and GC-MS mass spectrum.


[1] European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2019), Drug precursor developments in the European Union, EMCDDA Papers, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.

[2] Aalberg, L. et al., 2005. Development of a harmonised method for the profiling of amphetamines. Forensic Science International 149, 219–229.

[3] Świst, M., Wilamowski, J., Parczewski, A., 2005. Basic and neutral route specific impurities in MDMA prepared by different synthesis methods. Forensic Science International 155, 100–111.

[4] Gimeno, P., Besacier, F., Bottex, M., Dujourdy, L., Chaudron-Thozet, H., 2005. A study of impurities in intermediates and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) samples produced via reductive amination routes. Forensic Science International 155, 141–157.

[5] Hauser, F.M., Pütz, M., Rößler, T., Hulshof, J.W., 2019. Identification of specific markers for amphetamines synthesized from glycidic acid pre‐precursors and retrospective search in German profiling database. Drug Test Anal dta.2686.

[6] Hauser, F.M., Rößler, T., Hulshof, J.W., Weigel, D., Zimmermann, R., Pütz, M., 2018. Identification of specific markers for amphetamine synthesised from the pre-precursor APAAN following the Leuckart route and retrospective search for APAAN markers in profiling databases from Germany and the Netherlands. Drug Test Anal 10, 671–680.


Basic understanding in forensic chemistry. Affinity with illicit drugs synthesis and analysis is recommended.

 Amsterdam Forensic Laboratory

Dutch National Police

Supervisor : 

Ruben Kranenburg

UVA Co-assessor : 

Arian van Asten
UVA Coordinator :  Arian van Asten 


Contact Ruben Kranenburg