Science AMA Series: I’m Kevin Lothridge, forensic chemist and CEO of the National Forensic Science Technology Center. I’m here to talk about the challenges synthetic drugs are creating for forensic laboratories and crime scene investigators. AMA!

Abstract

Hi reddit!

I am Kevin Lothridge, CEO of the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) in Largo, Florida. I’ve been working in forensic science since taking my first job nearly 30 years ago.

At NFSTC, I have been able to work with a great team to train law enforcement agencies on the ever-changing technologies in forensic science. Notable now is the shift in street drugs – specifically with synthetic cannabinoids and fentanyl hitting the streets, field officers and crime laboratory chemists are facing new challenges. When I worked in the crime labs, most of the compounds were organic like marijuana, cocaine and heroin, which were easier to identify and less dangerous to officers. That’s simply no longer the case.

Most famously implicated in the death of Prince, synthetic drugs like Fentanyl are far more toxic than their predecessors. Fentanyl, for example, can be breathed in or absorbed through the skin with potentially lethal consequences to officers and laboratory personnel. Last month, NFSTC issued its first PSA/Officer warning on the handling of such chemicals.

In 2015, we presented a scientific poster at the American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD) annual conference on bringing higher level detection technologies into the field as part of an overall plan to improve public safety.

I’ll be back at 1 p.m. EST to answer your questions about the dangers of modern synthetic street drugs and how to properly identify them.

Edit: I'm so glad to be here and see that we have great questions. It's National Forensic Science Week--a perfect time to learn more about street chemistry. Let's get started... Edit: Thanks for all the great questions. It was a perfect way to spend my cake day with my second AMA. For more on the work of NFSTC, check out www.nfstc.org or our social media channels.

Is the pending end of prohibition of cannabis a boon or bane to your profession? Do you see an end to synthetic Marijuana as a positive or negative?

poifacerob

I personally do not think the legalization of cannabis will have any impact on the use of synthetic cannabinoids. Synthetic cannabinoids pose many public health risks. As u/Altephor1 mentions, it's still an impairment issue.


Given your background, what is your opinion on legalization of natural unprocessed plants such as cannabis?

TBone_Filthy_McNasty

As long as unprocessed plants such as cannabis are illegal, forensic scientists will have to perform analysis on those substances. Even in the current states where cannabis is legal, it is still a problem due to the fact that users can be impaired.


Hi Keven. What are some dependable signs that the synthetic drugs you mention are being produced at a particular place? Does the process for producing those drugs create dangerous byproducts such as happens with the production of methamphetamine? Or are most of those drugs being found on the streets from prescriptions?

Perhaps_This

Great question! There may be trace components in the compounds that would be indicative of the manufacture of these drugs. Since many of these compounds use strong acids, bases and organic solvents, it is always possible hazardous materials will be found at a manufacturing site. There are both prescription and illicit drugs on the street. Some are more prevalent than others in different areas.


Assuming that traditional colour spot/reagent tests still give a positive result for synthetic drugs, are there any additional tests or instruments that can be used in the field to determine identity, especially those that can be used by ordinary law enforcement?

ripperhugme

Great question! There are several instrumental methods that can be used in the field to test for these substances. They include FTIR, Raman, and GCMS. All of these technologies are now made to be used by properly trained law enforcement officers.


Things are getting bad here in British Columbia. Just this past week a 16 year old female died of a suspected Fentanyl overdose in a Starbucks bathroom and 1kg (50 million doses) of Carfentanil was intercepted en route to Calgary.

Do you think the solution to these research chemicals will be the same as the Quaalude problem, IE cutting off supply at the source?

polywave

I do not think it is really possible to cut off the supply of all illegal drugs. Even when supply of these drugs is decreased, other compounds replace them.


It seems from your poster you advocate Raman and IR. Are the functional groups for these drug compounds really so isolated they can be reliably detected? What's prohibiting widespread adoption of something like a triple quad MS which seems like it would be ideal for detecting any tweaked form of a drug.

lasserith

We are not advocating for Raman or FTIR, we were pointing out what was commercially available to be used for field drug testing. We believe that field portable GCMS and other separation and identification technologies hold promise for use in the field.


How did you first get involved in this field and ended up where you are now?

wutismyname

I always enjoyed science and was an avid reader of the Hardy Boys series. The continual change of technology and it's application to helping the public drove me to get a degree in forensic science. I had a deal with myself that if my work ever became dull or boring, I would do something else. Thirty-two years later, I'm still enjoying forensic science.


Thank you for doing this AMA!

This may be slightly outside of your area of work, but are there any current counteracting chemical compounds that could be used to treat someone who has taken in synthetic chemicals? For example, if a lab tech got Fentanyl on herself and it was absorbed through the skin, do we currently have methods to treat her?

I'm also fairly new to the topic of synthetic drugs, but it's my understanding that the half life tends to be extremely low1. This may sound like a stupid question, but does the use of synthetic drugs like Fentanyl indicate a more dangerous/addicted criminal?

If the United States transitioned to a rehabilitation-focused prevention form instead of a punitive one, do you see your job changing much? If so, in what ways?

Amannelle

You're welcome! I'm not aware of any studies that link addiction to synthetic drugs to specific criminal behaviors, so really can't address that. With regard to the Fentanyl question, it's my understanding that Narcan (naloxone) can be used to treat overdoses.


What are some signs that synthetic drugs may be present in the body of a perp or victim so that officers know to wear protective gear?

Also, I know there are some field tools like mobile fingerprint and facial recognition scanners that allow techs the ability to identify people in the field. Why have other tools lagged behind? Is it merely cost or are there other factors involved?

I used to work for a company that made the two tools mentioned above and I know government contracts for their use in foreign operations was an important factor in funding their research. That, and casinos. Is there simply less incentive for applications beyond more routine forensic investigations?

firedrops

  1. General personal protective equipment (PPE) should be used by all first responders in case the people they come in contact with are contaminated. There may be no signs that the individuals have used or come in contact with drugs or other unknown chemical compounds.
  2. Cost and local procedures sometimes impact the adoption of field portable instrumentation.

  1. In your opinion, how would some of these new, synthetic drugs fit into the current schedule system of drugs based on their composition and effects?

  2. Are there current testing processes that can be easily modified to look for and ID these new drugs, or do analytical methods have to be made from scratch?

  3. Do the detection limits, sensitivities, etc. differ much between the field and lab instruments mentioned in the poster presentation? Does the portability of the instruments hamper performance in any way?

Also, forensic chemistry/toxicology is the field I want to work in once I finish my Ph.D; it's basically my dream career. If possible, any quick advice on how to start in the forensic science career world? Thanks!

toomanymugs

  1. Since the synthetic drugs have no accepted medical use, they should all be Schedule 1.
  2. See the technology listed above. If a new compound is encountered, the laboratory who supports these field instruments may need to update the library for the instrument.
  3. The field portable instruments are designed to look at bulk substances. Many laboratory instruments and techniques can detect both bulk and trace materials. The design of the portable instruments, in most cases, does not affect performance. If you have a local forensic laboratory, reach out to them and ask for a tour. If possible, go to one of the many regional forensic science meetings where you can interface with working professionals. This will allow you to build your professional network and potentially secure an internship or help you apply for a position. Good luck!

Have you had any experience analyzing Krokodil? Is it as bad as people make it out to be?

ekpg

I have never personally analyzed desomorphine.


Any clue if 1P-LSD show up as LSD?

stonedtherapist19

I do not know if 1P-LSD will show up as LSD as I have never tested it.


How do you feel field mass specs compare to typical lab-based instruments? Do you find that there is a sufficient loss in sensitivity, large enough matrix effects etc to render portable MS instruments useless in some situations?

steph-nie

The system we use works equally as well as lab-based systems. Many of the components are identical to those found in standard GCMS. With the use of a gas chromatograph, we do not typically have any issue with the matrix effects.


Hi. A bit late to the ama: have you looked in into portable molecular scanners such as Scio (based on near infrared)? Which emerging or missing technology would make the technicians safer on the field.

iwantogofishing

We have done some work with near IR (NIR) instruments to see how well they worked on drugs, explosives and other chemicals. We are willing to explore any new technology that holds promise for the analysis of compounds of forensic interest.


What are some of the legal challenges that law enforcement experiences with artificial drugs? What could be done to fix them?

NotAMurderousAI

Many laws are written that identify specific drugs by their composition. Synthetic drugs can be manufactured so they are not covered by current laws. If each state used terminology that was broad enough to cover any variations of these synthetic drugs, then law enforcement could invest in field portable technology to identify these controlled substances.


What do you think of the scientists that work on creating more of these drugs, knowing that with little testing these drugs could be harmful to users?

MyNameIsntRoger

It is unfortunate that people with chemical skills choose to knowingly make compounds that are harmful to others. However, some compounds that are currently being abused were not developed to be used by humans.


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