In light of the ongoing opioid crisis in Canada, many cities and provinces have begun implementing drug testing services as a harms reduction measure to decrease the number of toxic overdoses and deaths. Moreover, drug testing is becoming more common at music festivals in several provinces to provide free information to festival goers regarding their substances as part of on-site harms reduction services available.

In this brief review, we will examine some of the most discriminatory current methods used to test illicit drugs in order to determine their composition and help individuals make informed decisions.

Mass spectrometry (MS)

How it works: Mass spectrometry technology involves analyzing substance components by separating and detecting ions based on differences in their charge and mass in an electromagnetic field. Common separation techniques used include gas chromatography (GC), liquid chromatography (LC), or capillary electrophoresis (CE).

Sensitivity: This method is highly sensitive and can detect virtually any substance.

Ease of use: Some expertise is required, including some theoretical knowledge and specialized training from an expert. Sample determination is also quick, providing results in seconds.

Ion mobility spectrometry (IMS)

Sensitivity: IMS is quick and accurate, and can be used to analyze complex samples as well. Substance identification requires a reference database of known molecules for accurate detection.

How it works: This technique separates and identifies ionized molecules based on their mobility in a carrier buffer gas.

Ease of use: IMS instruments are relatively easy to use and do not require a trained operator.

Infrared (IR) spectrometry

How it works: IR spectrometry can be used to analyze substances by measuring the interaction of infrared radiation with molecules.

Sensitivity: This method can be used to identify most compounds if their reference data is available.

Ease of use: Varying levels of expertise are required, ranging from basic to intermediate, depending on the device.

Raman spectroscopy 

How it works: This analytical technique involves using scattered light to measure the vibrational energy of molecules to identify a sample’s composition.

Sensitivity: Raman spectroscopy can be used to identify virtually any type of drug.

Ease of use: Required level of expertise varies depending on the device, ranging from intermediate, advanced, or expert.

X-ray diffractometry (X-ray D)

How it works: This method works by comparing X-ray diffraction patterns obtained from samples to other patterns contained in reference databases to identify specific substances.

Sensitivity: X-ray diffractometry is both highly sensitive and accurate; however, only samples of crystalline or partially crystalline substances can be analysed using this technique.

Ease of use: Requires a high level of training and safety procedures and is restricted to laboratory environments. In addition, a high skill level (advanced to expert) is required for operating X-ray diffractometry instruments.