The primary function of the section is the analysis of drugs, including controlled substances, pharmaceuticals and clandestine laboratory samples. Forensic scientists in the section analyze evidence items and conclusively identify a controlled substance or perform sufficient analysis to determine that no controlled substances are present.
Controlled substances are designated by the legislature of the State of Alaska in Alaska Statutes 11.71. A controlled substances is placed into a level or schedule based on the degree of danger or probable danger to a person or the public. Alaska has six schedules. Controlled substances in Schedule I are considered the highest danger.
Drug evidence submitted to the section can be analyzed through a variety of methods that include preliminary testing combined with confirmatory testing. Preliminary testing can include color testing, microcrystalline microscopic analysis, or physical identification of a tablet using a reliable source. The confirmation of the presence of a controlled substance is performed through one of two confirmatory tests, gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) or infrared spectrophotometry (FTIR).
Following analysis, a forensic scientist interprets the instrumental data and prepares a report of his/her findings. This report is used in criminal court proceedings and often the forensic scientist is asked to provide expert testimony to the courts.
Forensic scientists may also be called upon to analyze samples for federal agencies operating within Alaska for substances controlled under the Federal Uniform Controlled Substances Act. This action by the Drug Enforcement Administration, like the state statutes, organizes drugs into schedules which define substances that are controlled. Drugs are classified on their potential for abuse, current accepted medical use, and potential for dependence. There are five schedules in the federal guidelines.
Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States. It is usually in the form of a dried mixture of the buds, stems, seeds and leaves of the plant Cannabis. Marijuana is usually smoked in a cigarette or pipe but can also be mixed in baked goods and ingested orally. The main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana is THC (delta-9- tetrahydrocannabinol). Marijuana is a schedule VI drug in the State of Alaska and is schedule I federally.
Cocaine is derived from the coca plant and is one of the most commonly abused drugs in America. Cocaine was first isolated in 1860 and was found to have local anesthetic properties in addition to stimulating properties. Cocaine is found in two primary forms; the powder form and the base form. The powder form is ingested by snorting (nasal insuflation) or intravenous injection. The base form, commonly known as "crack", is ingested by smoking. Reports of hazardous side effects-obsessive use, psychosis, convulsions and sudden death, eventually led physicians and scientists to build a strong case against cocaine abuse. Currently, cocaine is a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substances Act. This scheduling indicates a high potential for addiction and abuse in spite of having legitimate medicinal uses.
Methamphetamine is an addictive stimulant that is closely related to amphetamine and has characteristics similar to that of cocaine. Methamphetamine remains in the system longer than these other two drugs, which can contribute to the significant health problems associated with methamphetamine abuse. Memory loss, aggression, psychosis, delusions, heart damage, rapid weight loss and severe tooth decay are among the many health problems attributed to the drug. Currently, methamphetamine is a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substances Act. This scheduling indicates a high potential for addiction and abuse in spite of having legitimate medicinal uses.
In recent years, a huge public safety issue developed with individuals manufacturing methamphetamine on their own using commonly available chemicals and drug precursors. These clandestine laboratories created major fire hazards and environmental pollution problems in addition to the manifold health problems.
Heroin (diacetylmorphine) is a narcotic drug, classified as a semi-synthetic opiate. It is produced from morphine which naturally occurs in opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). Heroin is a powerful analgesic and a central nervous system depressant; it is a more powerful analgesic than morphine. There are various ways of ingesting heroin: injecting, smoking, and snorting. It can have the appearance of white and beige powder; however, Black Tar Heroin that has a dark brown hard, candy-like appearance is the type most often seen in Alaska. Heroin is a schedule I drug in the State of Alaska and Federally.
Various controlled and non controlled prescription drugs are submitted to the laboratory. Prescription drugs include narcotic and non-narcotic central nervous system depressants. Narcotic type drugs include Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Hydromorphone, Morphine, and Methadone. Non-narcotic tranquilizers include Alprazolam, Diazepam, and Clonazepam.
MDMA or (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is more commonly known as Ecstasy. It is a synthetic drug that acts both as a stimulant and psychedelic and is chemically similar to methamphetamine. MDMA primarily comes in tablet form, often with popular logos and bright colors. MDMA is a schedule II drug in the State of Alaska and is schedule I Federally.
What drug evidence is commonly submitted to the lab?
Marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine are the three most common drugs submitted to the lab. In recent times heroin has gained popularity. Prescription drugs such as Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Morphine, Methadone, Clonazepam, Alprazolam, and Diazepam are often abused. Illicit tablets, known as Ecstasy (street name for Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) are frequently seen as evidence submissions at the lab. The lab also frequently receives submissions of drug paraphernalia such as pipes and digital scales.
What are controlled substances?
Drugs and certain other chemicals both narcotic and non-narcotic, which come under the jurisdiction of federal and state laws regulating their manufacture, sale, distribution, use and disposal.
What are precursor chemicals?
Precursor chemicals are chemicals used in the course of legitimate research that can potentially be used in the production of controlled substances such as methamphetamine, heroin, and MDMA (ecstasy).
How are drugs analyzed?
Various testing methods are utilized. Initially, an unknown substance is screened via preliminary tests that may include color and microscopy tests. To positively identify a substance, a confirmatory test is performed, such as gas chromatography or infrared spectroscopy.
What is preliminary testing?
Preliminary testing includes screening tests such as various color tests (similar to field tests used by officers) and microcrystalline tests using a polarizing microscope.
What are the educational requirements to work at the crime lab?
A bachelor's degree in a natural science is required to work at the lab. Chemistry coursework would be beneficial in the Controlled Substance section.
Is your job like CSI?
Results are not achieved as quickly as depicted on the show. Even with the help of sophisticated instruments, it can take hours to identify an unknown substance and produce a scientific report. Our instruments also do not "spit out" answers. The data produced by the instrument must be analyzed by a trained scientist.
How does a Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS) work?
Imagine a pile of different types of balls resting at the bottom of an inclined, paved driveway. This pile includes marbles, ping pong balls, golf balls, wiffle balls, tennis balls, footballs, and bowling balls. Attempt to move this collection of balls up the driveway with a normal leaf blower. Some of the pile will quickly move to the top of the driveway immediately, some balls will migrate at varying speeds, and some balls may take an eternity to reach the top of the driveway.
The difference in the time that each type of ball takes to travel to the top depends upon the characteristics of each ball. Obviously, the lighter balls travel more quickly. Also, some balls may take longer due to their shape, like the football.
GC analysis depends on similar phenomena to separate chemical substances. A mixture of chemicals present in a specimen can be separated in a thin tube called a column. Some chemical and physical characteristics of the molecules cause them to travel through the column at different speeds. In general, small molecules travel through the column more quickly than large molecules.
The MS is used to identify chemicals based on their structure. The MS portion of the instrument operates by "breaking" the individual molecules into many pieces. By looking at these pieces we are able to identify the original molecule. The idea is similar to if you hit a toy airplane with a hammer breaking it into pieces. If you were to give these same pieces to another person he would be able to determine that it was a toy airplane that was broken not a car or a boat. The concept of MS is much the same.
How does Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) work?
The FT-IR instrument shines infrared light through a sample; the light that is absorbed or transmitted is measured by the instrument. An IR spectrum, or printout, is created that shows the light absorbed at different wavelengths. An IR spectrum is much like a fingerprint in that it is unique to a substance and can therefore be used to make a positive identification.