When Marshmallow Isn’t Marshmallow

Posted by Fiona Coope on 18-Nov-2015 13:42:00
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Illegal drugs continue to be a significant issue across the UK, but it’s not only new psychoactive substances coming onto the market, new methods of cutting existing drugs are appearing too. With this in mind and in order to protect the public, the authorities need the knowledge of toxicology experts and state-of-the-art lab testing facilities so they can identify materials as quickly as possible after they are discovered.

Toxicology labs, like those at SOCOTEC, often have to test a range of drugs and other suspicious substances to determine what they are. But what happens when new substances are brought to the lab for identification that have never been seen before?

This was the case during one recent investigation carried out by the SOCOTEC toxicology team, when it was tasked with analysing an unidentified white solid. The substance was referred to as Marsh by both investigators and our toxicology experts, as its colour and spongy consistency appeared just like marshmallow.


Standard analytical routines, aimed at detecting drug compounds and associated cutting agents, showed that the Marsh samples contained no psychoactive substances. However, as so much of the material had been recovered in recent months, it was crucial that we understood its make-up to determine why it was so widespread. We carried out complementary analytical techniques to get to the bottom of the mystery, and the results were intriguing.

The traditional marshmallow we know and love is commonly made from sugar or corn syrup mixed with water, gelatin, dextrose and flavourings, with home-made varieties often featuring egg white. While it looked like the candy, Marsh was found to be made of boric acid, often used as an anti-septic, and lactose, the sugar found in milk.

These ingredients sound innocuous enough, if not quite as appetising as genuine marshmallow, but they are known to be widely used as cutting agents for cocaine hydrochloride (salt). This suggests that Marsh might well be part of a production process for one of the most widely used drugs in the UK.


But why go to these lengths for a cutting agent?

It seems that Marsh is similar in looks to cocaine in salt form, making it easy to blend the two materials together. However, with its higher specific gravity, Marsh can significantly increase the weight of the salt sold on the street and, as a result, its value – all without affecting the drug’s purity.

While it might not be a drug itself, knowing the composition of non-psychoactive substances like Marsh is important to help the authorities in its work. Finding boric acid, or any common cutting agents, in a suspicious material is a likely indication of its use in drug production. Identification of these substances is vital to enable investigations to be carried out appropriately and maximising the chances of success. 

Topics: Forensics, Toxicology, Chemical Analysis, Drugs of Abuse