Illicit drug analysis as a tool to combat global organised crime

Global drug crime involving the illicit production of synthetic drugs and the emergence of new legal highs has a detrimental effect on society and citizens.

In order to address this global problem, Professor Niamh Nic Daeid and her team – then at Strathclyde University but now at the University of Dundee – conducted research which resulted in three major impacts.

The provision of new tools allowed law enforcement agencies to increase their capacity to identify specific manufacturing routes of illicit drugs and link this back to criminal intelligence data.

There was an improvement in the accuracy and reliability of identification of legal highs for use by legal practitioners.

Finally, the research influenced the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s policy and protocol on legal high drug identification.

The research has underpinned the implementation of new analytical methodologies now routinely used in Malaysia and in more than 900 drug sample identification cases in Scotland alone between 2008 and 2013, the assessment period of the Research Excellence Framework 2014.

The architecture behind the global production of illicit synthetic drugs is complex and multi-faceted. It involves a series of autonomous chemical production phases, each servicing the supply of the next and is overarched by connection to complex organised crime networks.

The normal phases of illicit drug production include: chemical synthesis of pre-precursor materials followed by synthesis of the desired compound through a variety of routes; sample dilution with ‘cutting’ agents; and finally introduction of the illicit drug samples into the dealer/user distribution networks.

Due to the differences in chemical synthesis deployed, ‘families’ of impurities and side products become associated with these illicit drugs and can be used to profile and map which synthetic route has been used. Additionally, and in some circumstances, the chemical synthesis route categorisation can be tentatively aligned to a geographical area.

An extension of characterising illicit drug production is the ability to rapidly identify and quantify the controlled materials at point of seizure. This pervasive problem can be a barrier to successful litigation and investigative work particularly in, but not limited to, developing countries where access to rapid response forensic science services can be restricted.

Recent attempts to circumvent the criminality relating to illicit drugs have seen the rapidly growing emergence of so called ‘legal high’ compounds. Many of these compounds circumvent the existing drug legislation and pose a significant risk to the general population.

Methods to identify accurately the presence of such materials are vital to allow the development of the legal framework surrounding these contentious compounds. One of the major challenges to the legal environment is that the compounds emerge into society so rapidly and thus to identify them accurately is very difficult.

To overcome this, the legal highs in question need to be synthesised in a pure and accurate form to allow standardised analytical methodologies to be verified and validated for use within law enforcement.