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Ammonia release from heated ‘street’ cannabis leaf and its potential toxic effects on cannabis users

Roger N. Bloor1, Tianshu S. Wang2, Patrik Španeˇl3 & David Smith2
Academic Psychiatry Unit, Keele University Medical School, Academic Suite, Harplands Hospital, Hilton Road, Harpfields, Stoke-on-Trent, UK,1 Institute for Science and Technology in Medicine, School of Medicine, Keele University, Thornburrow Drive, Hartshill, Stoke-on-Trent, UK2 and J. Heyrovský, Institute of Physical Chemistry, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague, Czech Republic3

Aims To use selected ion flow tube mass spectrometry (SIFT-MS) to analyse the molecular species emitted by heated
‘street’ cannabis plant material, especially targeting ammonia. Materials and methods Samples of ‘street’ cannabis
leaf, held under a UK Home Office licence, were prepared by finely chopping and mixing the material. The samples were
then heated in commercially available devices. The air containing the released gaseous compounds was sampled into
the SIFT-MS instrument for analysis. Smoke from standard 3% National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) cannabis
cigarettes was also analysed. Findings For ‘street’ cannabis, ammonia was present in the air samples from the devices
at levels approaching 200 parts per million (p.p.m.). This is compared with peak levels of 10 p.p.m. using NIDA samples
of known provenance and tetrahydrocannabinol content (3%). Several other compounds were present at lower levels,
including acetaldehyde, methanol, acetone, acetic acid and uncharacterized terpenes. Conclusions Awareness of the
risks of inhaling the smoke directly from burning cannabis has led to the development of a number of alternative
methods of delivery, which are claimed to be safer than direct smoking. Ammonia at toxic levels is produced from
heating ‘street’ cannabis in these commercially available devices. Thus, the use of these devices to deliver ‘street’
cannabis is now open to question and further research is needed to investigate their safety.

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