Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Comparing Two Analytical Workflows for Seized Drug Analysis of Synthetic Cannabinoids, Cathinones, and Opioids



Edward Sisco, Amber Burns, Elizabeth Schneider, Charles R. Miller, IV, Laurel Bobka


As the challenges faced by drug chemists continue to persist, due the presence of synthetic opioids, novel psychoactive substances, and other emerging drugs, laboratories are continuing to look for new analytical approaches or techniques to ease the burdens. These new solutions can range from simple changes in existing methods to better distinguish isomers to adoption and implementation of entire new technologies for screening or confirmation. A barrier to these transitions, however, can be an incomplete understanding of how, and even if, these changes will address the challenges a laboratory is facing. In this study, we attempt to compare, qualitatively and quantitatively, an existing analytical workflow for seized drug analysis to a new, experimental workflow in order to better understand the potential benefits and drawbacks. Using a set of adjudicated and mock case samples containing synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones, and opioids, four forensic chemists were asked to analyze the samples using one of the two workflows. The existing workflow employed color tests for screening followed by general-purpose gas chromatography flame ionization detection (GC-FID) and general-purpose gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS) analyses for confirmation. The experimental workflow combined direct analysis in real time mass spectrometry (DART-MS) for screening with targeted GC-MS methods for confirmation. At each step in the analysis scheme chemists recorded the time required as well as the level of information obtained. The results of the comparison showed that screening by DART-MS required the same amount of time as color tests but yielded significantly more information. Confirmation using the GC-FID and GC-MS general analysis methods required more than twice the amount of instrument time and data interpretation time as well as several analytical challenges that prevented compound confirmation in some samples. Use of targeted GC-MS methods simplified data interpretation, reduced consumption of reference materials, and addressed almost all the limitations of general-purpose methods. While the experimental workflow is not fully ready and validated for casework, this study shows how rethinking analytical workflows for seized drug analysis could greatly assist laboratories in reducing turnaround times, backlogs, and standard consumption.
Journal of Forensic Sciences


Seized Drug Analysis, Analytical Workflow, Mass Spectrometry, DART-MS, GC-MS, Comparison


Sisco, E. , Burns, A. , Schneider, E. and Miller, C. (2021), Comparing Two Analytical Workflows for Seized Drug Analysis of Synthetic Cannabinoids, Cathinones, and Opioids, Journal of Forensic Sciences, [online], , (Accessed June 24, 2024)


If you have any questions about this publication or are having problems accessing it, please contact

Created October 25, 2021, Updated March 21, 2022