Forensic Analysis of the psychoactive alkaloids harmine and harmaline in peganum harmala seeds
Thompson, Alex Frances
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The Peganum harmala plant is a flowering shrub that produces small, dark brown seeds in pods. These seeds contain the hallucinogenic alkaloids harmine and harmaline. As such, they have been historically used for shamanic rites and folk medicine. Presently, P. harmala seeds are commercially available and subject to no legal restrictions in the United States. This has allowed for the recreational use and abuse of these hallucinogenic seeds or seed extracts made with household chemicals. Overdose cases from excessive consumption of seeds or seed extracts have been reported. Overdose patients present with hallucinations, tremors, agitation, tachycardia, and gastric distress. Severe overdose cases have resulted in hospitalization for respiratory depression and coma. The goal of this research was to develop a protocol for forensic analysis of suspected P. harmala seeds. Physical examination was selected as a quick, cost-effective preliminary method to screen seeds. P. harmala seeds are, on average, approximately 2.3 ± 0.3 mm long and 1.0 ± 0.2 mm thick, with an average Feret’s diameter of 2.8 ± 0.3 mm. The mean mass of one seed is 2.5 ± 0.2 mg. The seeds are dark brown, irregularly shaped, and have a pitted surface. Seeds matching these descriptors can be further analyzed to detect harmine and harmaline. Direct analysis in real time (DART) allows for very rapid mass spectral analysis of P. harmala seeds. Ions corresponding to harmine and harmaline can be detected when an intact seed is placed in front of the DART ion source, and higher levels of harmine and harmaline are observed when a seed cut in half to reveal interior surfaces is analyzed. Solvent extraction of crushed seeds using ethanol followed by gas chromatography – mass spectrometry allows for confirmation of the presence of harmine and harmaline in suspected seeds. When selected ion monitoring is used, this method is able to detect harmine and harmaline in a sample consisting of a single seed. Infrared spectra of harmine and harmaline standards, crushed P. harmala seeds, and solid material obtained from evaporating off the solvent from an extraction of crushed seeds were obtained. Infrared spectroscopy can be used to distinguish between pure harmine and harmaline, but is a poor choice for analysis of samples containing a mixture of harmine and harmaline, such as P. harmala seeds. In conclusion, physical characterization, direct analysis in real time, solvent extraction, and gas chromatography – mass spectrometry are recommended techniques for the forensic analysis of P. harmala seeds.
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