Identifying Cutting Agents in MDMA (Molly)


MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine) is a Schedule 1 controlled substance widely known as "ecstasy". "Molly" is a colloquial term referring to MDMA in powder or crystalline form, usually implying a higher level of purity. When ingested, MDMA is said to give a sense of euphoria, mild psychedelia, an increase in energy, and often produces a sense of intimacy with others.

The drug is popular at raves and concerts and has recently been associated with a string of overdoses in Boston, New York City, and Washington, DC. Lethal side effects include body over-heating, increased heart rate, and a rise in blood pressure which can result in heart attack or death. In Molly, the MDMA is often cut with everything from caffeine to rat poison, and often it isn’t MDMA at all, but methylone, a similar and equally dangerous substance. With the recent string of deaths involving MDMA, experts warn that the drug could be contaminated or completely counterfeit, creating a challenge for law enforcement to identify the street drugs and additional adulterants that can be laced with it.

Drug Identification in the Field

Fortunately new field-portable instruments promise to put more sophisticated drug identification in the hands of first responders. Raman spectroscopy, such as that used by Centice’s Mobile Field Lab-3000 (MFL-3000) allows the user to record the spectral fingerprint of an unknown substance and immediately compare that to another unknown substance.

Combined with the ability to identify precursors and essential chemicals, Raman offers first responders the kind of forensic intelligence needed to act quickly and decisively.

This capability means that Raman adapts particularly well to the challenge of emerging drugs, such as Molly (and the adulterants being added), Methamphetamine, bath salts, and more.

The Power of Raman Spectroscopy

With Raman Spectroscopy, a laser is directed at a substance. The laser excites the molecules in the substance and emits energy or wavelengths of light that can be captured. The resulting data on the wavelengths represents the unique “signature” of the substance. This information can be displayed as a graph and can be matched to known graphs of drugs. By deploying the capability for chemical analysis into the field, law enforcement agencies can reduce the pressure on forensic laboratories for confirmatory identification.

Intelligence Led Investigations

One of the biggest trends lately is toward synthetic or “designer” drugs, including amphetamine-type substances, “bath salts”, and synthetic cannabinoids (“spice”). Their widely ranging chemical compositions make it challenging for the law to keep up with new variants, both in terms of legislation and identification. Raman adapts particularly well to the challenge of emerging drugs. Each compound or mixture scanned has a unique spectral fingerprint that can be added to the library as it is encountered, allowing comparison to another unknown substance within minutes. This type of detailed comparison can be used to identify drugs by batch, and to link distribution. Combined with the ability to identify precursors and essential chemicals, Raman offers first responders the kind of forensic intelligence needed to act quickly and decisively.

The Advantages of Raman Spectroscopy and the Centice MFL-3000

“The MFL does not destroy the evidence so we can get evidence on a small sample and increase our ability to prosecute to the full extent.”
— Tom Volner, Reynolds County Sheriff

With affordable price tag that doesn’t require constant refilling of chemical kits and no need for technical expertise to operate, it offers low cost-per-use and doesn’t destroy any evidence when used. It performs well for cocaine, distinguishing salt from base forms. It can also distinguish easily between date rape drugs like GHB, rohypnol, and diazepam. More than one component in a mixture can be identified by subtracting the best match and resubmitting the fingerprint to the library for comparison. When compared to colorimetric tests by those working in the field, the overwhelming opinion is that it makes identifying drugs easier, less dangerous, and less expensive.

Traditional drug identification is limited

In the past, when suspected illegal substances are encountered in the field, chemical kits, using colorimetric testing is performed. This identified the most likely class of compound (amphetamine, cocaine, etc.), but is prone to subjective results and false positives. Since each tests for a specific drug class, several attempts may be needed to classify a single sample. Available for fewer than two dozen drugs, the tests have limited shelf life and expose officers to potential contact with chemicals and broken glass. Raman spectroscopy is shown to have higher discriminatory power than a color based tests. Raman has lower false positive rate but much higher false negative rate. Plus, the color tests are only applicable for the top drugs and cannot be used universally for all substances.

Evidence law then requires testing in an accredited lab using two to three independent techniques.

Raman in the Courts

The DOJ has declared Raman Spectroscopy a valid science for the examination of evidence and Raman Spectroscopy has been used for evidence purposes in several US District courts involving pharmaceuticals.

In addition, The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) co-sponsored the formation of Scientific Working Group for the analysis of seized drugs (SWGDRUG). The group classifies all available sciences for drug analysis into three categories – category A, B or C based on their discriminatory power with “A” being the highest and “C” the lowest. Their guidelines to forensic labs indicate that a lab has to perform two tests on the seized samples, of which at least one should “A”. For example, the lab can categorize a sample as containing cocaine only if both tests indicate its presence.

Raman spectroscopy can be considered as meeting the “A” test requirement. A color test for cocaine would meet the requirement for a “C” test and support the results from the MFL-3000. Hence a combination of MFL-3000 and color tests can be considered confirmatory.

Centice Mobile Field Lab-3000

The Centice MFL-3000 enables narcotic squads and drug task forces to quickly and easily perform drug identification in the field without destroying any evidence. Centice’s Raman spectroscopy technology rapidly scans any pill or illicit substance and identifies its unique spectral fingerprint. The MFL-3000 also identifies cutting agents and precursors used in making illicit drugs, and works with both pure substances and mixtures. With a library of over 3,600 narcotics, precursors, synthetic drugs, and prescription pills, the MFL-3000 helps law enforcement identify the vast majority of illicit substances found on the street.

“With the MFL-3000, we are able to swiftly identify substances without having to release suspects pending lab analysis and then seek arrest warrants months later. It has been invaluable in narcotic drug identification, a proven product with street-durable hardware and easy to use, reliable software.”
—Roger C. Salmonsen, Esq., Investigator, General Narcotics Unit, City of Tallahassee Police Dept., FL

Raman spectroscopy in use today

Commander Phillip W. Price with Georgia’s Cherokee Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad (CMANS) has been using one of the portable Raman technologies, the Mobile Field Lab- 3000, for controlled prescription drug (CPD) identification for more than a year and a half. “The MFL-3000 is an excellent tool that gives us a greater deal of confidence than we had in the past when it comes to presumptive drug testing. It provides a refined test that is as close as you can get to 100 percent without having all the checks and balances,” stated Price. In the past, Poison Control was called and CPDs were identified by appearance (markings, color and size). With Raman spectroscopy, substances are identified by chemical analysis. That means crushed and partial pills as well as tablets with the markings removed are easily identified in a matter of seconds. “As the technology evolves and the hardware is refined these tools have the potential to become standard in the field. We are in the early adoption phase and there are a multitude of other uses (beyond narcotics identification) such as in HAZMAT incidents,” Price added.

About Centice

Centice Corporation is a leader in delivering unique technology and systems for identification and verification of chemical substances. The MFL-3000, which uses Centice’s patented coded aperture Raman Spectroscopy technology, allows law enforcement agencies to quickly identify over 3,600 Controlled Prescription Drugs (CPD), street narcotics and cutting agent mixtures. The portable system provides field narcotic officers and drug interdiction agents with technology typically only available to crime labs. Operating worldwide through a network of distributors and support organizations the company sells to governments, non-governmental organizations (NGO), and local law enforcement departments. By leveraging expertise in applied Raman Spectroscopy and patented Coded Aperture design Centice engineers deliver on faster acquisition times, greater sensor reliability, and more sensitive spectra data acquisition.

For more about Centice’s MFL-3000, or to schedule a demo, visit or call sales at 919-674-4001 or email us at
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Item of Interest

The language barrier between English-speaking investigators and Spanish-speaking witnesses is a growing problem. (Updated 28 February 2011)