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Science Of Synthetics

February 17, 2012, 10:04 PM by Perry Groten

Science Of Synthetics
SIOUX FALLS, SD - The growing popularity of designer drugs is forcing South Dakota law enforcement agencies to play a game of chemical cat-and-mouse with the people concocting the drugs.

The makers try to skirt the laws by simply tweaking a molecule here and there. So it takes a trained eye to detect where the real danger lies with fake pot.

Eyeballing fake marijuana with the real thing doesn't reveal much in a side-by-side comparison.

"Looking at it with the naked eye, they look somewhat similar. You can see why they call it synthetic pot," Sioux Falls Police Crime Lab Manager Matt Jorgenson said.

The differences come into sharper focus when viewed under a microscope. But to tell what chemicals the synthetic pot has been laced with, you need to ramp up this piece of equipment. This analyzing machine at the Sioux Falls police crime lab acts like a molecular sieve, separating one chemical from another.

"Small items will fly through faster, larger items clunk along and will come out later," Jorgenson said.

The compounds spin through the machine and reveal spikes on the computer screen that alert police about what illegal substances are present.

"The testing itself will take around an hour," Jorgenson said.

Research tools like this help police try to keep up with the ever-evolving active ingredients that create the high in synthetic drugs.

"The research has not caught up with as fast as they're making these structures," Jorgenson said.

Sophisticated labs overseas are constantly juggling the chemical structure in synthetic drugs to evade the law and detection.

"This particular compound, CP47-497, if you add a carbon to it, it's illegal, but if you subtract it off of its structure, it's legal," Jorgenson said.

To identify those structures, investigators need an electronic fingerprint, called a standard, that serves as template for each of the growing number of illegal compounds.

"That's where the crux of the problem is.  Every time they make a new chemical, we have to get the standard of it to compare against," Jorgenson said.

And each so-called standard costs $1,500, making testing for synthetic drugs an expensive endeavor for law enforcement. There's also the potential for a backlog with so many chemicals added to the mix.

"The amount of burden it's going to put on our chemistry section is going to be fairly frustrating. The actual analysis, it's just going to be a matter of playing catch up," Jorgenson said.

Police say it's the unknowns that make these synthetic drugs so dangerous. If a professional chemist can't tell what's in them without a thorough analysis, how can a casual user know?

"They could be taking it one time and find a mild annoyance to it. They could be taking it the next time and an outright psychotic episode is the result of it. So, there's really no rhyme or reason to this product," Jorgenson said.

But Jorgenson is determined to unscramble this chemical jigsaw puzzle that provides cover for the designer drug industry.

"It is a game of catch-up, but I don't necessarily think it's not an unwinnable fight," Jorgenson said.

Right now, Sioux Falls police can test for five illegal chemical structures in synthetic pot. But there are more than 200 different variations of chemicals, and that number keeps rising.

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