The sophisticated science behind stopping drugs at New Zealand's borders
Sophisticated "designer drug" manufacturers are tweaking the molecular structures of their products to avoid detection at New Zealand borders, officials say.
In response, officials have deployed new techniques to detect these illegal drugs, including increasingly sophisticated forms of spectroscopy that identify the unique chemical fingerprints of compounds crossing the border.
Designer drugs – also known as legal highs, party pills, herbal highs, synthetics, legal recreational drugs and a long and inventive list of street names – are made by rogue chemists in Europe, North America and Asia.
They make users high, although some probably don't. Many are known to be dangerous, others have never been seen before.
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They are made available on the "dark net", that corner of the world wide web where illegal things – weapons, drugs, child porn – are bought and sold.
The problem for New Zealand buyers is getting the compounds into the country. Officials at the New Zealand Customs Service know about the dark net and and are alert to incoming substances.
Ecstasy, for example, has been a street drug since the 1980s and officials are experienced at detecting, identifying and seizing it.
To avoid this, Walter Whites around the world subtly change the molecular structure of their compounds, hoping they will slip past border officials.
Take 3-CMC, for example. Formally known as 3-chloromethcathinone, it is a "substituted form" of methcathinone, itself an analog of methamphetamine.
To distinguish 3-CMC from methcathinone, a "chlorine atom [is] inserted in the meta position of the phenyl ring", according to Cayman Chemical, a Michigan-based supplier of research substances.
These types of changes are apparently made for the sole purpose of avoiding detection, although it's possible the changes affect the compounds' psychoactive effect.
Which is one reason New Zealand officials are so worried.
"They make the tweaks to mimic the controlled substances," says Cameron Johnson, a senior scientist at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR). "Whether it makes them more potent or less potent is unknown because these things are so new.
"There's not a lot research done on them, which highlights the danger they pose to New Zealanders."
"Not a lot is known about where they are created and the risk to the public is huge," says Tim Williams, a technical specialist at customs. Users "don't actually know what they're getting", he says.
The number of new designer drugs coming onto the market is high, with the the UN Office on Drugs and Crime registering a new drug almost every week. "You can see how quickly these things develop and how quickly they come into the mainstream," says Johnson.
To prevent harm and uphold the law, customs has teamed with ESR and in some situations chemistry academics from the University of Auckland, to detect and seize these compounds.
All international mail arriving in New Zealand passes through the mail centre at Auckland airport and this is a major focus for officials. Drugs can also enter the country at sea and air ports around the country.
Customs deploys FirstDefender handheld chemical identification devices as the first line of defence. They use laser technology to identify substances using a library of about 11,000 legal and illegal substances.
About 40 per cent don't produce a match and they are sent to ESR for further analysis. It uses Raman spectroscopy to determine the "chemical fingerprints" of suspect compounds.
Almost all are identified in these first two steps but about 14 per cent remain unknown.
"Because a lot of these substances are so new, they don't feature on the commercial databases and there's no materials available for comparisons," says ESR's Johnson.
The compounds are forwarded to the University of Auckland, which uses a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, the same technology used in MRI machines in the health sector.
"NMR breaks down the molecule into its component pieces and how they relate to each other and you can piece the whole thing back together," says Johnson. "That's a lot more sophisticated than the instrumentation than we otherwise have available."
If a compound has to be analysed with NMR, it's almost certainly a controlled substance.
The results are added to databases in New Zealand and shared with forensics labs around the world. NMR isn't cheap and so the results are shared.
Customs works closely with international partners on designer drugs, says Williams, with Australia a particular interest because what shows up at Australian borders usually shows up on New Zealand's borders.
Tim Williams from Customs states firmly that a package of controlled substances "is seized, it will never be delivered".
Instead an investigation begins. "An arrest may not happen the next day, but it starts to build a bigger picture for us and we can start putting together whether the person is importing for personal consumption or importing for supply," he says.
Customs has the power of arrest and can run investigations entirely on its own. "There are ongoing operations that customs are running in regards to psychoactive substances," Williams says.
Other times, Customs works with police.
It's not known how much designer drug gets past customs and ESR. "That's a really difficult question," Williams says.
"The volume is pretty low. It's one of those real unknowns."
But volumes are though to be slim compared to methamphetamine, also known as P, and its precursor chemicals. Packages of those can weigh kilograms and in one notable case in Northland last year, 500kg.
"We are seeing just how quickly these things [designer drugs] and develop and evolve," Williams says.
"There's no research into them, what they do to you and your health. We've got no idea where they're made and who is making them. It's quite a scary thing."