Dr. Sarah Kerrigan works with a colleague in the lab.
With designer drug use on the rise, crime labs and medical examiner's offices are often asked to perform toxicological tests on biological evidence in criminal and death investigations. However, many of these new designer drugs have unique properties that still need to be investigated.
The Department of Forensic Science at Sam Houston State University is conducting research to investigate the stability of several of these new synthetic substances, which will help practitioners interpret toxicological findings in forensic casework.
In 2012, the U.S. Congress enacted the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, which banned the use of 26 synthetic compounds commonly used in designer drugs such as bath salts, Spice, K2 and synthetic marijuana. These drugs are capable of producing powerful hallucinogenic and adrenergic effects and have been implicated in cases of impaired driving and death investigations. Despite the ban, many of these compounds are still popular among drug users.
The Department of Forensic Science received a grant from the National Institute of Justice to research the long term stability of synthetic cathinones, often referred to as "bath salts.” The scientific research will investigate the impact of storage, transportation and other factors that may degrade biological evidence.
“Ultimately, a lack of understanding concerning the stability of these drugs can impact criminal and death investigation casework,” said Dr. Sarah Kerrigan, Principal Investigator for the study and Chair of the Department of Forensic Science. "Some of these drugs are known to be unstable. In order for us to reliably interpret toxicological findings, we need to understand these mechanisms so that we can take steps to preserve evidence. Understanding their stability in biological evidence can be the difference between having a cause of death, and not having one. It can have a significant impact."
The study will evaluate up to 20 synthetic cathinones in blood and urine under a variety of conditions over at least six months. The research includes a collaboration with a high throughput laboratory in California, which conducts thousands of tests daily. At the conclusion of the study, we'll retest samples from cathinone users. This will allow us to compare our experimental findings with those in actual drug users.
Although identification of designer drugs is becoming routine in controlled substance cases, such as the identification of seized pills, powders and liquids, toxicological testing of blood, urine or tissue samples still present a number of challenges to busy toxicology laboratories with growing backlogs.
"It's a challenge to keep up,” Dr. Kerrigan said. "As soon as labs develop methods for one drug, another is available on the street.”
General class bans, like those in Texas and other states, can help minimize the proliferation, but many of the new designer drugs produce effects that are highly sought after by recreational drug users, so legislative efforts have limited impact. As recently as January 28th of this year, the federal government published its intent to schedule ten more cathinones.
The new research dove-tails on existing NIJ-funded work on synthetic cathinones and psychedelic amphetamines in Dr. Kerrigan's research group.
"This type of research really helps prepare us for the challenges we will face in the crime lab," said Megan Savage, a student researcher who will graduate with a Master of Science in Forensic Sciences degree this May.
Stability is often influenced by the properties of the drug, characteristics of the specimen, container selection, storage temperature and the use of preservatives and other additives. It also may be influenced by pH level and the presence of other substances.
"Understanding these factors will improve our ability to interpret the results, and determine their significance in forensic investigations," said Dr. Kerrigan.