Ford welcomes innovative drugs research funded by assets seized from criminals

Date published: 04 March 2016

Justice Minister, David Ford has praised innovative research taken forward by Queens University in partnership with Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI) to identify the substances in so-called “legal highs”.

The research, which received funding of £71,000 from the Department of Justice through the Assets Recovery Scheme, has developed a new approach to identifying legal highs which allows for rapid screening. 

David Ford said:  “The importance of this valuable research cannot be overstated.  New Psychoactive Substances or as they are more commonly known, ‘legal highs’, continue to be a major problem on our streets and because so many compounds are being created it is very hard to keep ahead of those irresponsibly producing them.

“It is welcome that new legislation which comes into force in April will outlaw these substances but we cannot be complacent.  Experience tells us that making a substance illegal will sadly not be enough of a deterrent to many people.  Therefore continuing work to identify these dangerous substances and understand more about them is vital.

“Whilst there is still work to do, this research will help Forensic Science Northern Ireland to determine what is in these ‘legal highs’ more quickly, enabling them to identify substances, including those previously unseen,  and get public health messages out to communities.  It is also very satisfying that this work is funded by the Asset Recovery Community Scheme which uses the assets seized from criminals to support projects aimed at preventing crime.”

In showing the Minister the techniques used by Queens, Professor Steven Bell, Director of Innovative Molecular Materials in the School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering said: “We are glad to be able to put our expertise - in what used to be a very exotic technique - to use for real practical applications. Legal highs are a very real threat to public health since new compounds are difficult to identify and their effects are not properly understood. There have been instances of highly dangerous compounds appearing on the market, resulting in fatalities.  This very clearly demonstrates the need for research such as this”.

Professor Bell continued “The research involves identifying the chemical signatures of the compounds by focussing a laser on the sample and then measuring the energy of the light that scatters from it. These patterns can be searched against a “library” of known compounds and are either identified or highlighted as “new” compounds requiring further analysis. In the study more than 75% of all samples were identified immediately, potentially dramatically reducing the need for conventional time-consuming analysis and freeing up time to allow the unidentified compounds to be investigated in depth”. 


Notes to editors: 

Initial findings from this Research have been published in the journal The Analyst

(Analyst, 2016,141, 902-909, DOI:  10.1039/C5AN02326B).

Assets Recovery Community Scheme

The Department of Justice has been given access to resources from criminal confiscation receipts collected in Northern Ireland.  50% of the funds confiscated are allocated to schemes to reduce crime and the fear of crime and to support communities affected by crime.

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