Forensic Science Student Presents on Test for Stimulant Kratom

By Purnell T. Cropper | March 9, 2012

Arcadia University Master of Science in Forensic Science student Theresa Scott, a resident of Brighton, Mich., presented her research, “Chemical Characterization of Kratom and Associated Alkaloids,” at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in February in Atlanta.

“I have always loved science, and when I took introduction to forensic science and criminology lecture courses as an undergrad, I was hooked,” says Scott. “Forensic Science is a great way to integrate my love of science and my desire to help people. Arcadia’s program educates and trains students in four different disciplines of forensic science: biology, toxicology, chemistry, and trace evidence, and this really appealed to me, since I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do upon graduation. Also, their guaranteed internship and the program’s association with NMS Labs drew me to Philadelphia.” Scott earned a B.S. in Biochemistry from Michigan State University.

Scott’s abstract:

After attending this presentation, attendees will be able to identify Kratom in their laboratory through its most prevalent and unique alkaloid, mitragynine, using standard forensic chemical testing procedures that meet SWDRUG recommendations. This presentation will impact the forensic science community by developing methods to analyze mitragynine containing products when they are submitted to crime labs. Some more popular Internet products are starting to be composed of Kratom thus containing mitragynine, and it is important to have a method developed for testing such products.

Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is a tree found mainly in Asian countries and, when consumed in low doses, provides both a stimulant and analgesic effect. When consumed in high doses, Kratom has a depressant effect and its major alkaloid, mitragynine, has been found in combination with other depressants in a small number of deaths to this point. Although Kratom and mitragynine products are not yet popular in the United States, brand names such as K2 are beginning to incorporate these natural stimulants in their incense products to replace the synthetic cannabinoids which are continually being scheduled in more states. In addition to the K2 brand products containing mitragynine, many Internet sites market a number of different Kratom goods, including liquid extracts, dried leaves, powdered leaves, and the plants themselves. Commonly Kratom products are advertised as herbals and are labeled “not for human consumption.” As with other current legal high products, user websites detail how to consume Kratom, the most common of which is steeping the dried leaves or powder in hot water and drinking as tea.

In order to be able to identify Kratom, the most prevalent alkaloid, mitragynine, is used. Standard forensic color tests of various mitragynine containing products produce positive results similar to the mitragynine standard. However, these colors are botanical in nature (colors such as greens and browns) and therefore color tests are not an ideal presumptive test to utilize for mitragynine.

A simple methanol extraction followed by thin layer chromatography (TLC) using a 9:1 chloroform to methanol solvent system yields good separation of the components of the botanical material. Viewing under short wave ultra violet light allows visualization of the mitragynine bands and final development with iodoplatinate spray permits viewing and marking of the bands for retention factor calculations. Retention factors of the bands produced from the methanol extraction of the purchased products were compared to the bands from the standard mitragynine and found to be similar. Thus it could preliminarily be determined that products analyzed may contain mitragynine (i.e. are Kratom in origin). Consequently, TLC is a useful presumptive test for Kratom and its alkaloid, mitragynine.

Performing a basic extraction concentrates the Kratom alkaloids and provides excellent sample clean up allowing the products to be analyzed using the GC/MS. This method is sufficient for the identification of Kratom by locating mitragynine within the chromatogram, using the built-in library search for the mass spectrum, and final identification by comparison to standard mitragynine mass spectrum.

Analysis of several different products, including a K2 product as well as various products that were believed to be Kratom through appearance, revealed the presence of mitragynine. Of the nine samples for this study, two were purchased over the internet by our laboratory and seven were obtained as evidence submitted to the NMS laboratory for analysis. The two purchased by our lab were obtained from a reputable site from which samples for other research projects have been purchased and both were labeled as Kratom products. Of the seven samples acquired through NMS lab one was a bag of capsules each of with contained a green powder, another was a K2 product, and the rest were either silver bags with a zip top or small, plastic containers all appearing to contain a green, botanical powder.