Tracking Drug Sources with Isotopes

Nicola Beckett of Griffith University.
Nicola Beckett of Griffith University

The Society of Forensic Science hosted a presentation by an Australian researcher who is using cutting-edge technology to investigate designer drugs and clandestine labs.

Nicola Beckett, a Ph.D. student from Griffith University in Australia, presented her research using isotopic profiling of designer drugs to reveal possible links between seized drug samples or to discriminate between drug samples. Beckett was on her way to Montreal to present her case study to the Forensic Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry Conference.

“We can help answer where the sample came from,” said Beckett. “It can provide new information and intelligence to get to the source of the drugs.”

MDMA or esctacy pills.Photo courtesy of DEA.
MDMA or esctacy pills. Photo Courtesy of the DEA
Designer drugs, such as piperazines marketed as “herbal pills and party pills,” are synthetic compounds that produce stimulant or hallucinogenic effects. These drugs and key substances in the manufacturing of the drugs were banned in the U.S. and Australia several years ago, however illegal detection has continued to rise in some countries.

In the U.S., forensic scientists routinely use Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (GCMS) to help identify drug samples in crime labs. But other parts of the world, particularly New Zealand and Australia, have started using a new technology, Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (IRMS), in forensic applications. By analyzing isotopes of the atoms that make up the drug molecule, scientists can identify the possible geographic, chemical or biological origins of substances. Based on the isotopic content in designer drugs, those isotopes can help to group drugs with common sources of manufacture or discriminate between different batches of drugs.

Beckett shares her research with students from the Society of Forensic Science.
Beckett shares her research with students from the Society of Forensic Science.
Beckett studied samples of two drugs, benzyl- piperazine and trifluoro- methylphenyl- piperazine, seized in separate cases in Australia. By using the isotope method, Beckett was able to determine one of the drugs may have a common source, while the other was suggestive of different sources of manufacture.

Currently, the only lab that may use IRMS for forensic investigations is the FBI in Quantico, Virginia. In addition to its potential use for designer drugs, IRMS also is employed by the FBI to investigate explosive to help pinpoint the source of bomb-making materials and in counterfeit cases to detect differences between real and fake materials.

The IRMS machines are also used in the food industry to determine the authenticity of organic products, Beckett said.

The Society of Forensic Science is a special interest group at SHSU, consisting of individuals who are interested in working together to expand and share their knowledge of Forensic Science. The society participates in various volunteer and fundraising activities throughout the year.

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