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New Zealand Customs ESR Screening Laboratory

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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 Customs/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.

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. 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.

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 to CESL to be analysed and matched against databases of known compounds. However, many designer drugs avoid detection as they are sufficiently modified from known substances 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 order to increase identification of these substances, ESR embarked on a project in collaboration with the University of Auckland in 2011 to develop analytical methods that would identify unknown suspicious compounds.

Chemical fingerprint.

The process utilises 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.

Overall, forty new designer drugs have been identified and the results recorded into a Designer Drug Database (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 New Zealand communities, as well as assisting in Customs investigations.

With the increase in access, and constant evolution of designer drugs, realtime information is crucial. In order to keep ahead of a changing market, ESR will continue this work when further funding opportunities arise.

CESL in action - t-BOC-methamphetamine

Earlier this year a joint Police and Customs sting caught 160 litres of methamphetamine as it entered New Zealand, labelled as dishwashing liquid.

Preliminary testing of the liquid at CESL was unable to identify the liquid, but indicated that it might contain a concealed or controlled substance of some kind. The liquid was subsequently submitted to ESR for a full analysis which identified a novel substance, namely t-BOC-methamphetamine.

The identification led to an investigation into the substance t-BOC-methamphetamine, and how drug legislation would apply to such a substance.

Chemically altering a controlled drug is a common practice to evade detection techniques and legislative control. The discovery of t-BOC-methamphetamine supports a new trend in drug concealment techniques, whereby a controlled drug is chemically altered, and then later reverted back to the original controlled drug. This can be done by adding a ‘protective group’, such as N-tert-butoxycarbonyl (t-BOC) to a controlled drug like methamphetamine.

There is the potential for other ‘protective groups’ to be utilised for similar concealment purposes. A project called ‘Chemical Camouflage’ has been proposed to New Zealand Customs Service to investigate this new phenomenon.

The research into t-BOC-methamphetamine has led to a research paper being accepted for publication in the Journal of the Clandestine Laboratory Investigating Chemists Association.