Methamphetamine (meth, Figure 1) abuse is one of the top drug problems impacting the social, economic, and health welfare of many developed and developing countries. Short-term use of meth, a powerful stimulant, provides a euphoric sense of alertness and enhanced capability for work-related activities. Chronic use inevitably leads to addiction, antisocial and sometimes violent criminal behavior, and a pronounced decline in the overall health and well-being of the user.
The proliferation and use of meth across the US, Asia, and Europe is aided by underground «kitchen» laboratories, which are the primary source of clandestine meth production and distribution.
Figure 1. Methamphetamine crystals.
Meth can be easily synthesized from pseudoephedrine extracted from over-the-counter cold medications (Figure 2) and easily purchased commercial products enriched in required reagents.
Figure 2. Pseudoephedrine tablets.
A number of different procedures have been adopted for the clandestine synthesis of meth. However, the widespread one-pot «Shake and Bake» method is uniquely adapted for covert small-scale cooking operations due to the inherent simplicity of the chemical reaction and laboratory setup.
Increasingly, methamphetamine production has moved from large-scale laboratory operations to small-scale syntheses using one-pot methods. To address this challenge, police must identify the contents of potential reaction vessels and establish a pattern of production within a discrete geographical area in order to apprehend and convict methamphetamine producers.
The target in these cases can be a discarded glass jar or plastic drink bottle containing reaction residue (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Plastic waste that appears to be the remains of a clandestine meth laboratory.
Effective suppression of meth production requires rapid confirmation of meth, or its related precursors and byproducts. Ideally, such tests are performed at the scene of suspected primitive «cooking» facilities by drug enforcement officers and first responders. On-site detection must utilize instrumentation that is compact, cost-effective, fast, and incorporates user-friendly operation procedures.
However, rapid and portable detection capabilities for front-line law enforcement officers are lacking. These include pH strips, direct observation of odors, lab-related trash and chemical containers, and notoriously unreliable colorimetric tests. The alternative is laboratory analysis, which is complicated due to costs, time, transport, and availability.
Handheld Raman is a relatively new method that streamlines field identification of potentially flammable and explosive residues in one-pot vessels (Figure 4). Sampling and identification occurs through plastic and glass surfaces, ensuring police safety by reducing exposure to potentially hazardous materials.
In this article, the advantage of using handheld Raman to obtain forensic evidence linking a suspected «cook» site with meth production is demonstrated. Mira DS is Metrohm’s premier handheld Raman system designed to meet the needs of first responders (Figure 5).
Figure 5. Metrohm Raman Mira DS and optional measurement attachments for the simple identification of illicit and hazardous materials.
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Unlike trained analytical scientists, defense and security professionals need a solution that gives them instant results without complicated routines. With Smart Acquire, Mira DS is a point-and-shoot solution. Simply power up the instrument, touch the screen once to activate the laser and again to take a sample, then Mira DS automatically optimizes acquisition parameters, processes data, identifies the target through library matching, and delivers the results with relevant chemical warnings – all in less than a minute. When Mira DS is used with MiraCal M mobile software, these results can be shared instantly to alert others of potential danger.
Response Team Training with Mira DS
Simulated testing of a small-scale meth production facility was conducted in the US Midwest by the Security and Defense directorate of Metrohm USA to support Civil Support Team (CST) Training. During the Civil Support Skills CBRNE Course training, first responders are taught to recognize laboratories in which Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear or high-yield Explosive materials are being manufactured or manipulated.
Equipped with a detailed education in weapons of mass destruction and drug chemistry, attendees are required to recreate and evaluate realistic clandestine laboratories using innovative methods (Figure 6). Upon the successful completion of training, CST graduates possess unique capabilities, expertise, and an in-depth command of the technologies required for responding to CBRNE defense scenarios.
Figure 6. Images of CST test site for illicit chemical synthesis using Mira DS with Standoff Attachment for safe measurement.
During CST training, meth was synthesized using the one pot «Shake and Bake» method. This is the preferred route for making meth in low resource labs, despite relatively low product purity. The key ingredients for synthesis are easily sourced from hardware and drug stores. Preparatory procedures, the chemical reaction steps, and drug recovery can be performed in a few hours using emptied glass jars or plastic beverage bottles, tape, and tubing. Plastic is preferred to glass, as the risk of explosion during the course of the reaction is very high.
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Testing for illicit substances is simple with Mira DS
Trainees used Mira DS (Figure 5), a handheld Raman device, to directly interrogate liquid waste in glass jars at a simulated cook site directly through the container material. Attachments for Mira DS snap on with a simple magnetic interface. Figure 7 shows the analysis of the actual one-pot meth reaction waste, seen as a bi-phasic liquid layer that remained following the removal of product.
First, the Intelligent Universal Attachment (iUA) was used in its «bottle» setting to test each liquid waste layer directly through the glass. This attachment has three settings, including «surface» for direct contact with a material, and «bag» and «bottle» for sampling through thin and thick barriers.
Figure 7. Mira DS with Intelligent Universal Attachment in use at CST training, testing bi-phasic one-pot meth reaction waste. Left: measuring the bottom (yellow) layer – identified as calcium nitrate. Right: measuring the top (orange) layer – identified as acetone.
Next, the Contact Ball Probe Attachment (CBP) was used to confirm the identity of the waste. CBP is a chemically resistant quick dip solution for direct sampling, and can be used with both liquids and powdered solids.
In short, Mira DS was outfitted with an attachment, powered up, the laser activated, and testing initiated using the touch screen. On-board Smart Acquire algorithms automatically optimize acquisition parameters (Laser Power, Integration Time, Averaging, etc.), process spectral data, perform library searches and matching for the user, and report results in under a minute with color-coded chemical warnings and alerts.
Results of the CST training
The library spectral stack in Figure 8 includes the product, methamphetamine, and reagents used in its synthesis during the training course. Actual data acquired during both training and real-world testing scenarios can be expected to be «messy» due to substandard reaction conditions and resulting complex chemical mixtures. Mira DS addresses this challenge by automatically correlating acquired spectra with library spectra of illicit substances, performing Mixture Matching routines, and rapidly reporting the top matches.
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To summarize, Mira DS is capable of rapidly identifying key components of a popular method for clandestine meth synthesis. Two notable aspects of these results:
- additional peaks in experimental spectra correlate with unidentified reaction byproducts, but
- the excellent spectral resolution here, reinforced by very high correlation (HQI) scores, is a reflection of the suitability of handheld Raman as an on-site analytical tool.
In real world situations, first responders must maintain their training and stay current regarding the diverse materials and methods they are likely to encounter to ensure that Raman library entries are up to date.
In most situations, the product has already been removed from the cook site. Therefore one-pot meth site inspection does not realistically result in a methamphetamine identification, but the discarded waste chemicals can provide forensic evidence of meth production. These results illustrate the unique capabilities of handheld Raman in the hands of law enforcement in real world scenarios. This technique is powerful in several ways:
- Data can be collected on-site and shared electronically for increased technical support
- No-contact sampling of container contents reduces danger during investigation
- Results are given in a few seconds
- Mixture Matching provides results for real world scenarios
- Results provide forensic evidence to link a suspected cook site with methamphetamine production
Mira DS is a promising and robust analytical tool for obtaining corroborative forensic evidence and successfully prosecuting drug crime.
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Safety in Any Situation – Addressing the needs of first responders
Post written by Dr. Mark Harpster (Research Scientist, University of Wyoming/Applications Chemist, Metrohm Raman, Laramie, Wyoming, USA), Dr. Melissa J. Gelwicks (Applications Chemist, Metrohm Raman, Laramie, Wyoming, USA), and Dr. Bryan H. Ray (WMD Clandestine Production Laboratory Site Safety Officer Course/Civil Support Skills CBRNE Course Instructor, Metrohm USA, Tampa, Florida).