In the fields of Forensic Toxicology and Forensic Science, the day-to-day experiences of scientists can vary depending on the area of the world they serve. Our goal with the “Alternative Perspectives” series is to offer experiences from Forensic Scientists all over the world.
We begin this journey with Christina Coucke-Garza’s “A Horse of Many Colors” which explores her experience with controlled versus non-controlled status of drugs and how that has changed during her career as a Senior Forensic Drug Chemist.
Alternative Perspectives: A Horse of Many Colors
By: Christina Coucke-Garza, Senior Forensic Drug Chemist
The first thing I remember learning when taking forensic science as a class in college was that forensics is the joining of science and law. Sounds pretty simple, but of course it can be a headache. Science may as well be Latin and law might as well be German. As a drug chemist in the state of Texas, Texas law affects most of what I do. Law affects how much of a sample I can test (the more weight, the higher the penalty) and how I need to report out a drug (chemical name versus name in the law books). There are two words that are very important in regards to drug laws: non-controlled and controlled drugs. Now, we have a specific definition of both but I will simplify: controlled = jail time and non-controlled = no jail time. Cocaine is controlled and acetaminophen is not. When I began my adventure in Drug Chemistry 8 years ago dealing with controlled versus non-controlled was simpler. Of course, everything is subject to change…
“Designer drugs” hit in full force by 2008 in our laboratory with “Spice” filtering in a few years later. Unlike 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA or “Ecstasy”) and marijuana which have been illegal for years, these drugs tried to skirt the issue of controlled versus non-controlled. Opportunists decided to latch on to this and create a new market for numerous clients by producing and selling compounds that mimic controlled drugs. Before N-benzylpiperazine (BZP) first came out, MDMA was the ticket in the club drug/clandestine tablet market. Problem was, when you are caught selling or possessing this drug, a lot of times you go to jail. However, N-benzylpiperazine could be manufactured and sold quite easily. As enough research was conducted to support changing the control status, the government stepped in and labeled these new compounds as illegal. So then, the opportunists moved on to the next drug that had not been made illegal yet, and the circle of drug life continued.
Originally created for scientific purposes, the JWH compounds or synthetic cannabinoids are sprayed onto plant material, sold as incense and slapped with a “not for human consumption” label. Commonly know as “Spice”, they began simply enough with JWH 018, 200 and 081; however now one could say a number and it’s probably associated with a different JWH compound. How many expensive standards must an accredited lab order to keep up with the growing number of possible drugs? The new designer drug we encounter now are the “NBOMe’s”—such as 25(I, B, and C—take your pick)-NBOMe—and these are the ones that have just become controlled. We have mostly seen them on perforated paper, very similar to Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD or “Acid”) ingestion. Since some of the NBOMe’s have just become illegal, we probably won’t see much of them anymore. Who wants to sell an illegal drug when there are hundreds of legal ones (in that they have not become controlled just yet).
When I started my career in science I didn’t think it would bring me back to thinking about a beloved childhood classic. A horse of a different color (who could be many different colors), that beautiful animal from The Emerald City—that’s the analogy I see when I look at drugs. The drug scene is mutable (although there are some old standards) just like that horse, but it is still that same animal underneath all those differences. What is the solution? Legalize? States are trying to legalize marijuana in opposition to federal law. That, of course, is complicated and everyone is watching those states. After all, even though alcohol is regulated that doesn’t stop the backwoodsman from making moonshine. Also, marijuana has some history of study and it is difficult to compare it to these new drugs, which can be very dangerous when consumed. I don’t know if there is a perfect solution to this complex issue. I guess that is why I became a scientist, and will constantly look for solutions.
Figure A: perforated paper used with “N-Bome” compounds
Senior Forensic Drug Chemist
Bio: Christina Coucke-Garza is a forensic chemist in the state of Texas with 10 years’ experience with drug analysis, fire debris analysis, and toxicology. She holds a Bachelor’s of Science Degree (Biology, University of Texas at Arlington) and a Master’s of Science degree (Forensic Science, Marshall University). She also has a wonderful husband, vivacious 1 year old girl, and 3 demanding dogs.