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Synthetic cathinones are related to the parent compound cathinone (Figure 1), one of the psychoactive principals in khat (Catha edulis Forsk). Cathinone derivatives are the β-keto (βk) analogues of a corresponding phenethylamine. The group includes several substances that have been used as active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) of medicinal products, e.g. amfepramone (diethylpropion; Figure 2). Since the mid-2000s, unregulated ring-substituted cathinone derivatives have appeared in the European recreational drugs market. The most commonly available cathinones sold on the recreational market in the period up to 2010 appear to be mephedrone (Figure 3) and methylone (Figure 4). These products are usually encountered as highly pure white or brown powders. Ring-substituted cathinone derivatives are claimed to have effects similar to those of cocaine, amphetamine or MDMA (ecstasy), but little is known of their detailed pharmacology. Apart from cathinone (Figure 1), methcathinone (Figure 5) and two API’s amfepramone (Figure 2) and pyrovalerone, cathinone derivatives are not under international control.

Chemistry

Figures 1–7 show the naturally occurring cathinone (Figure 1) and six synthetic derivatives (Figures 2–7).

Figure 1: Cathinone

Molecular formula: C9H11NO
Molecular weight: 149.19 g/mol

Figure 2: Amfepramone (diethylpropion)

Molecular formula: C13H19NO
Molecular weight: 205.30 g/mol

Figure 3: Mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone, 4-MMC)

Molecular formula: C11H15NO
Molecular weight: 177.24 g/mol

Figure 4: Methylone (βk-MDMA, 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylcathinone)

Molecular formula: C11H13NO3
Molecular weight: 207.22 g/mol

Figure 5: Methcathinone (ephedrone)

Molecular formula: C10H13NO
Molecular weight: 163.22 g/mol

Figure 6: MDPV (3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone)

Molecular formula: C16H21NO3
Molecular weight: 275.35 g/mol

Figure 7: Methedrone (βk-PMMA, 4-methoxymethcathinone)

Molecular formula: C11H15NO2
Molecular weight: 193.24 g/mol

Cathinone (Figure 1) and its derivatives are closely related to the phenethylamine family. Thus cathinone itself is β-keto (βk) amphetamine, 2-aminopropiophenone or, more formally, 2-amino-1-phenyl-1-propanone (IUPAC systematic name). The first synthetic cathinone that appeared in the recreational drug market, methcathinone (Figure 5), is βk-methamphetamine, ephedrone or N-methylcathinone. Most of the unregulated cathinone derivatives that have been marketed in the past few years are ring-substituted, the most prevalent of which appears to be mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone, 4-MMC, Figure 3). Some products sold are also likely to contain a mixture of different chemicals. Other cathinones reported to the Early warning system on new drugs include methylone (βk-MDMA; 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylcathinone, Figure 4), MDPV (3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone, Figure 6), methedrone (βk-PMMA; 4-methoxymethcathinone, Figure 7) and PPP (α-pyrrolidinopropiophenone).

Like the phenethylamines, cathinone derivatives can exist in two stereoisomeric forms, which may differ in their potencies. The cathinone that occurs naturally in khat is the S-enantiomers. However, it is likely that most ring-substituted derivatives are racemic mixtures. It is also believed that racemisation of all cathinone derivatives can occur through keto-enol tautomerism. Cathinone is labile and transforms to a dimer (3,6-dimethyl-2,5-diphenylpyrazine). Cathinone derivatives can also rearrange via a dihydropyrazine dimer to form so-called ‘isocathinones’; All known cathinone derivatives are either N-alkylated or the nitrogen atom is part of a pyrrolidine ring, and most are produced as hydrochloride salts. Many illicit products are N-methylated, i.e. ephedrone derivatives, whereby mephedrone can be described as 4-methylephedrone. The pyrrolidine derivatives (PPP, MDPV) can be regarded as a sub-set of ‘designer drugs’ sharing the same skeleton as pyrovalerone. Table 1 lists those cathinone derivatives that have been used as API, found in drug seizures, samples collected for monitoring purposes or offered for sale on Internet sites (see Figure 8). Naphyrone (1-naphthalen-2-yl-2-pyrrolidin-1-ylpentan-1-one), a more complex cathinone derivative, is not included in Table 1.

Figure 8: General structure of a cathinone derivative showing substitution patterns

Table 1

The structural classification of cathinone derivatives found in drug seizures, collected samples or offered for sale on Internet sites (see Figure 8). Those that are or have been used as active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) are shown emboldened.

R1 R2 R3 R4 R5 Name
H H H H H Cathinone
Methyl H H H H Methcathinone (ephedrone)
Methyl Methyl H H H N,N-Dimethylcathinone (metamfepramone)
Ethyl H H H H N-Ethylcathinone (EC)
Methyl H H Methyl H Buphedrone
Ethyl H 4-Methyl H H 4-Methyl-N-ethylcathinone
Methyl H 4-Methyl H H Mephedrone (4-MMC; M-CAT)
Ethyl Ethyl H H H Amfepramone
t-Butyl H 3-CI H H Bupropion
Methyl H 3,4-Methylenedioxy H H Methylone (βk-MDMA)
Ethyl H 3,4-Methylenedioxy H H Ethylone (βk-MDEA)
Methyl H 4-Methyl Methyl H Butylone (βk-MBDB)
Methyl H 4-Methoxy H H Methedrone (βk-PMMA)
Methyl H 4-F H H Flephedrone (4-FMC)
Methyl H 3-F H H 3-Fluoromethcathinone (3-FMC)
{pyrrolidino} H

H

H α-Pyrrolidinopropiophenone (PPP)
{pyrrolidino} 4-Methyl H H 4-Methyl-α-pyrrolidinopropiophenone (MPPP)
{pyrrolidino}  4-MeO H  H 4-methoxy-α-pyrrolidinopropiophenone (MOPPP)
{pyrrolidino} 4-Methyl Propyl  H 4-Methyl-α-pyrrolidino-hexanophenone (MPHP)
{pyrrolidino} 4-Methyl  Ethyl  H Pyrovalerone
{pyrrolidino} 4-Methyl  Methyl  H 4-Methyl-α-pyrrolidino-butyrophenone (MPBP)
{pyrrolidino} 4-Methyl  H  Methyl 4-Methyl-α-pyrrolidino-α-methylpropiophenone
{pyrrolidino} 3,4-Methylenedioxy H H 3,4-Methylenedioxy-α-pyrrolidinopropiophenone (MDPPP)
{pyrrolidino} 3,4-Methylenedioxy Ethyl H 3,4-Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV)

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Physical form

Synthetic cathinones are mostly encountered as white or brown amorphous or crystalline powders, occasionally encapsulated. Unlike many phenethylamine derivatives (MDMA, etc.), tablets are less common but are sometimes available on the illicit market, presumably as a replacement for MDMA.

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Pharmacology

As with phenethylamines, in the absence of ring-substitution, cathinones behave as central nervous system (CNS) stimulants, although invariably with a lower potency than the corresponding phenethylamine analogue. The lower potency is caused by the β-keto group creating a more polar molecule less able to cross the blood–brain barrier. Studies on the metabolism of methcathinone derivatives in rats and humans have shown that they are N-demethylated, the keto group is reduced to hydroxyl, and ring alkyl groups are oxidised. Otherwise, few formal studies have been made on the pharmacokinetics or pharmacodynamics of ring-substituted cathinones. From observations of patients who presented with suspected mephedrone toxicity, it appears that cathinone derivatives show similar sympathomimetic effects to amphetamine derivatives. The first toxicologically confirmed fatal case directly linked to mephedrone use was recorded in Sweden in 2008.

User reports on Internet sites suggest that a typical dose of mephedrone is 100–250 mg. Depending on the particular substance, the effects are claimed to be similar to those of cocaine, amphetamine or MDMA. Like cocaine, the resulting ‘high’ of mephedrone is short-lived. Consequently, users may consume several doses in succession, up to 1 g in a session. This is supported by the finding that the most common ‘wrap size’ of mephedrone found in police seizures in the United Kingdom is close to 750 mg.

The pyrrolidine ring and the tertiary amino group in MDPV could lead to a more lipophilic, i.e. more potent, molecule; Internet user-forums suggest that the dose is as low as 5–10 mg. Furthermore, it should be noted that p-methoxyphenethylamines (e.g. PMA, PMMA) are known to have a particularly high toxicity, and this property might translate to their βk-analogues. For example, methedrone (p-methoxymethcathinone) has been detected in a few fatalities.

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Synthesis and precursors

Simple derivatives such as methcathinone and N,N-dimethylcathinone can be synthesised by oxidation of ephedrine (or pseudoephedrine) and N-methylephedrine (or N-methylpseudoephedrine) respectively. This requires reacting the precursor with a solution of potassium permanganate in dilute sulfuric acid. The precursors can be obtained as specific enantiomers, thereby ensuring that the synthesis is stereoselective. Cathinone itself can be made in a similar way, starting from phenylpropanolamine (norephedrine). One of the hazards of the permanganate process is that users can suffer manganese poisoning if the product is not purified.

The ring-substituted N-methylcathinone derivatives are best synthesised by reacting the suitably substituted bromopropiophenone with methylamine; the result is always racemic. In the case of methylone, for example, 2-bromo-3,4-methylenedioxy-propiophenone can be prepared by reacting 3,4-methylenedioxypropiophenone with bromine. These precursor substances are readily available and none of them is under international control. Other methods are required to produce the pyrrolidine derivatives, but apart from MDPV, substances such as PPP, MPHP, MOPPP and MDPPP, which briefly appeared in Germany in 2004 (see Table 1), have since been rarely observed.

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Mode of use

Some users insufflate (snort) mephedrone, but most of the cathinones are ingested. Since they are soluble in water, these substances can also be injected. Because of their lability, the free bases would probably not be suitable for smoking.

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Other names

To circumnavigate possible controls, suppliers of cathinone derivatives often market them under various brand names (e.g. Explosion, Blow, Recharge, etc.) as ‘plant food’, ‘bath salts’, or ‘research chemicals’, often with a printed warning that they are ‘not for human consumption’. As with the phenethylamines, acronyms are common. Thus MDPV stands for 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone, 4-FMC for 4-fluoromethcathinone (flephedrone), and 4-MMC for 4-methylmethcathinone (mephedrone). User names for mephedrone include M-Cat, meph, drone, miaow, meow meow, subcoca-1 and bubbles; while methylone is sometimes known as Top Cat. However, these substances are often sold in products that have a large number of brand names that change rapidly over time and where the specific content is often not given. The chemical names can lead to confusion; methylone, mephedrone and methedrone should be distinguished from each other and from the unrelated narcotic analgesic methadone. Although βk-MBDB is often described as ‘butylone’, butylone has also been used as a proprietary name for the unrelated barbiturate pentobarbital.

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Analysis

Cathinone derivatives do not give a coloured reaction with the Marquis field test. Analysis using GCMS and Infrared (IR) spectroscopy is straightforward. Although pure reference samples of some derivatives may not be commercially available, analytical profiles for most have been published. Immunoassay field tests for methamphetamine give false positive reactions with some cathinone derivatives.

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Typical purities

Some powders containing mephedrone and related compounds have been adulterated with other drugs such as ketamine, cocaine, paracetamol or piperazine derivatives, but most appear to be highly pure as judged by IR spectroscopy.

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Control status

Cathinone and methcathinone are listed in Schedule I of the United Nations 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Amfepramone and pyrovalerone are in Schedule IV of that Convention, but other derivatives are not under international control. A few cathinone derivatives are controlled in some Member States under drug control or equivalent legislation, for example: mephedrone (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Ireland, France, Italy, Lithuania, Romania, Sweden, Croatia and Norway); methylone (Denmark, Ireland, Romania and Sweden); butylone (Denmark, Ireland, Romania, Sweden and Norway); MDPV (Denmark, Ireland, Finland and Sweden); and flephedrone (Denmark, Ireland and Romania). Generic control in the United Kingdom covers a wide group of cathinone derivatives. Mephedrone is controlled under medicines legislation in Finland and the Netherlands and Finland. 

By Council Decision of 2 December 2010, 4-methylmethcathinone (mephedrone) was submitted to control measures in EU Member States (2010/759/EU).

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Prevalence

Synthetic cathinones have only recently appeared on the recreational drugs market, and few formal epidemiological studies have been published. There are no nationwide studies within the EU on the prevalence of mephedrone use in any given population. In an online survey conducted in late 2010 in collaboration with the United Kingdom’s dance music magazine Mixmag, mephedrone was the fourth most-commonly used drug in the past year (after cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine) and had been tried by 61 % of respondents. 25 % of respondents had tried it within the last month, which was a decrease compared to 33.6% in late 2009. It should be noted that mephedrone was scheduled in the UK mid-april 2010. 

Although not controlled in many countries, synthetic cathinones are regularly submitted to forensic laboratories by police and customs for identification. The number of such submissions increased rapidly during the second half of 2009. Methylone was one of the first ring-substituted synthetic cathinones to be reported in the EU (Netherlands, Sweden, 2005), but mephedrone has become the most commonly seen derivative. Information on seizures and samples from the Netherlands indicate that tablets sold as ecstasy, but actually containing mephedrone (sometimes in combination with MDMA), appeared on the market for the first time in 2009. However, the absence of systematic data makes it difficult to comment with confidence on the availability of different cathinone products, although reports do suggest that availability varies over time and place.  

Up until the introduction of control measures in the UK in April 2010, mephedrone and other synthetic cathinones were readily available either from Internet suppliers or retail outlets. An EMCDDA snapshot of the availability of mephedrone on the Internet in March 2010 showed that at least 77 websites, would sell and ship the substance to a user in the EU. In July 2011, 18 websites were identified claiming to sell mephedrone.

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Street price

Mephedrone and related compounds are primarily sold on websites or in ‘head shops’. The 2010 EMCDDA snapshot showed prices ranging between EUR 10 and 15 for one gram, with discounts offered for bigger quantities. In the 2011 EMCDDA snapshot prices were ranging between EUR 18 and 25 for one gram.

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Medical use

Amfepramone and pyrovalerone have been used as anorectics, but are now largely obsolete. Bupropion has antidepressant properties and is used as an aid for those who wish to quit tobacco smoking.

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About the EMCDDA

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is the reference point on drugs and drug addiction information in Europe. Inaugurated in Lisbon in 1995, it is one of the EU's decentralised agencies. Read more >>

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Page last updated: Monday, 15 December 2014