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Every day thousands of people, packages and large amounts of cargo arrive at the New Zealand border and enter the country. The Custom’s ESR Screening Laboratory (CESL) in Auckland is responsible for screening and identifying suspected drug samples seized by Customs at border security, and through the international mail centre.

With internet access widening the scope of drug sources, a new threat has emerged over recent years with the introduction of designer drugs becoming readily available online.

First generation designer drugs broke into the market under the guise of ‘bath salts’ with subsequent names ranging from ‘herbal incense’ to ‘research chemicals’ and a wide variety of alternative, seemingly harmless labelling, to try to circumvent monitoring and control.

The newly developed drugs mimic the effects of a controlled substance, while attempting to avoid legislative control and identification, using standard drug testing techniques. Many of the new drugs end up being controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, or the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013. These drugs generally have a short life-span and as a consequence there is limited research available on the harm to end-users. Therefore, they pose significant risk to communities if they come into the country.

Suspicious seizures are sent for testing at CESL to be analysed and matched against databases of known compounds. However, many designer drugs avoid detection as they are modified enough from known substances so that current analytical methods can’t identify them. With new compounds being manufactured constantly, analysis techniques struggle to keep up with the pace of drug manufacturing.

In 2015, in order to increase drug identification of these substances at CESL, ESR embarked on a year-long project in collaboration with the University of Auckland to develop analytical methods that would identify unknown suspicious compounds. The process utilised a technique called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy which is the same technology used for medical MRI radiology. This technique breaks the compound down like a jigsaw puzzle and pieces it back together again, providing its structure.

Chemical fingerprint of designer drug 3-CMC

Overall, forty new designer drugs have been identified and a Designer Drug Database compiled with the results (see image above of the ‘chemical fingerprint’ of the designer drug 3-CMC, generated during this project). The Designer Drug Database is now in use at the screening laboratory and accounts for nearly 15% of all identifications made at CESL.

The project allowed for real-time updates to be made to capture information and trends on border seizures, compared to the months that it could take without this technique. The information is also essential to inform other agencies of potential risks that may be entering into New Zealand communities as well as assisting in Customs investigations.

With the increase in access and constant evolution of designer drugs, real-time information is crucial. In order to keep ahead of a changing market, ESR is looking at continuing this work when further funding opportunities arise.

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