The UN Office on Drugs and Crime registers, every week, a new “designer drug,” a senior scientist at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research explained. He explained that chemists created designer drugs for two major reasons. He only cared about one. The one he focused on involved avoiding detection at New Zealand’s borders. Substance detection at the New Zealand border fell behind as new chemicals spawned weekly.
As drugs with tweaked structures emerge, law enforcement—customs in particular—find the identification increasingly difficult. Cameron Johnson, a researcher at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), used 3-chloromethcathinone as a primary example of the he explained to stuff.co.nz. That drug, 3-chloromethcathinone, came from the addition of a chlorine atom on the phenyl ring of the drug’s base molecular structure methcathinone. Of course, methcathinone is a pseudo-analog of methamphetamine.
“They make the tweaks to mimic the controlled substances,” Johnson said. “Whether it makes them more potent or less potent is unknown because these things are so new. There’s not a lot research done on them, which highlights the danger they pose to New Zealanders.”
Many of the drugs, researchers believe, could kill a person with ease. As Johnson also pointed out—alongside the unknown toxicity of new designer drugs—a potency change often occurs as well. Stronger for some, weaker for others. In most United States cases, death from designer drugs usually occur when the substance is new and the potency unknown. The greatest example of this situation is the so-called “opioid crisis.”
New opioids constantly emerge from overseas. As new opioids, they carry very little documentation, reside in a legal gray area, and cause issues for lawmakers, law enforcement, and especially the drug user. When a dealer sells a more potent opioid but calls it a weaker one, the customer may attempt to compensate for the potency difference. That compensation becomes overcompensation and death is not uncommon.
Johnson said the ESR paired with Customs and the University of Auckland to stop incoming drugs. Specifically newly created designer drugs enabled by the darknet. The first line of defense, a researcher, explained, was “a handheld chemical identification device.” Such devices are used across the world for chemical detection. One company, ThermoFisher Scientific, sells a handheld unit that notably features cathinone detection on the front page.
“Synthetic cathinones represent a global health crisis—and a tough law enforcement challenge. The TruNarc [name of the specific unit] handheld analyzer is designed to identify numerous synthetic cathinones right at the scene, even those that are similar in appearance.”
Customs scans with one of these devices, reportedly utilizing a chemical library with 11,000 data entries. Both legal and illegal. The illegal ones picked up by the ThermoFisher unit include: “narcotics, synthetic drugs, cutting agents, and precursor materials.” The entire test is non contact and evidence remains in the state that it arrived in. Despite the extensive library at their disposal, customs is left guessing at 40 percent of the tested substances.
ESR then picks the unknown samples up and uses Raman spectroscopy against the surface of each substance. Only 14 percent move on from there as undetected specimens. Researchers from the University of Auckland receive the samples and test them with the equivalent of an MRI machine for drugs. The unidentified substance is run through nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy machine.
“NMR breaks down the molecule into its component pieces and how they relate to each other and you can piece the whole thing back together,” says Johnson. “That’s a lot more sophisticated than the instrumentation than we otherwise have available.” He said that if customs intercepts a package of suspected narcotics and it ends up at the University of Auckland – it contained narcotics.
He said that customs, in addition to partnering with labs and research organizations within the country, started working with customs in other countries as well. Australia especially, Johnson said. If someone ships a drug to Australia, someone will ship the same chemical to New Zealand. And the same goes for the reverse situation. With international partnerships, New Zealand authorities want to follow paths and watch trends. Sometimes the police arrest the recipient immediately. Sometimes they sit and wait for the right time as the recipient could provide key insight into the world of research chemical distribution.