Illicit substances (Forensic Science)
Illicit substances are essentially any substances that are illegal to purchase, possess, or sell. They can be outright dangerous, such as a volatile liquid peroxide explosive, or they can be more silently dangerous, such as a pure fix of heroin. The majority of illicit substances encountered by most forensic science laboratories are drugs.
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LSD (Forensic Science)
LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide, is a powerful hallucinogenic drug. Users of LSD experience visual and auditory hallucinations. Often, they describe “hearing” colors and “seeing” sounds. Getting high on LSD is known as tripping. Whether users experience good trips or bad trips depends on their mental states, their surroundings, and the strength of the dosage. Bad trips can result in feelings of fear, anxiety, and paranoia. If users begin to panic during bad trips, they can be at risk of physically injuring themselves. The usual treatment for bad trips includes reassuring the users that they are safe, that the effects of the drug will soon wear off, and that they will return to normal. No evidence has been found that LSD is physically addictive, but tolerance to the drug can develop within three to six days of continued use.
Most users of LSD ingest the drug by placing a square of blotter paper containing the drug on the tongue. Saliva in the mouth dissolves the drug so it can be absorbed through the mucous membranes. LSD can be added to pills, sugar cubes, foods, or liquids—it is readily absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract. Alternatively, liquid LSD can be dripped into the eye.
LSD is produced both synthetically and agriculturally. Synthetic routes for the production of LSD have been published in the scientific literature as well as by the U.S. Patent Office. These processes are complex, and operators of...
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Ecstasy (Forensic Science)
Known alternatively as X, XTC, and the love drug, ecstasy is commonly known as a drug used by many who attend the all-night dance parties known as raves. Effects of ecstasy include feelings of euphoria and relaxation, increased openness, lowering of defenses and reservations, and enhanced sense of touch. Users of ecstasy experience a false sense of emotional closeness and will freely touch and hug other people, even strangers.
The chemical name for ecstasy is 3,4, methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA. The majority of MDMA available in the United States is produced in clandestine laboratories in Belgium and the Netherlands. More than twenty methods of manufacturing MDMA have been published. Production of this drug is complex and requires many hazardous chemicals.
MDMA is available in both powder and pill form. Ecstasy tablets come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors and carry a variety of imprints, such as hearts, cartoon characters, or letters. Each tablet may cost only twenty-five cents to produce, but the drug can sell for ten to sixty dollars per pill on the street.
The most common route of ingestion of ecstasy is oral, but it can also be smoked, snorted, or injected. Physical effects of the drug are felt within thirty minutes of oral ingestion. Typically, effects of MDMA persist for from four to six hours. In the brain, MDMA causes the release of large quantities of the neurotransmitter serotonin while...
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Cocaine (Forensic Science)
Derived from coca plants, which are native to South America, cocaine is a powerful central nervous system stimulant. Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia are the primary sources of illicit coca plants. cocaine is extracted from the coca leaves in a three-step process. In the first step, the dried coca leaves are steeped in strong base (such as lime), and a solvent such as kerosene is added to dissolve the cocaine alkaloids. In the second step, the leaves are removed, and a water/acid mixture is added to the solvent. The cocaine alkaloids move into the water layer from the kerosene layer. In the third step, strong base is again added to the mixture. This causes the cocaine alkaloids to precipitate out of solution to form a cocaine paste that has a purity of 40 to 60 percent. Generally, the cocaine paste is further processed at makeshift laboratories to remove contaminants and improve the purity.
Cocaine can be found in several forms: cocaine hydrochloride, freebase, and crack. Cocaine hydrochloride is generally a white, crystalline powder that resembles granulated sugar in appearance. This may not be the case, however, if the drug has been cut with other chemicals to reduce the purity and the price. Freebase is the purest form of cocaine. Crack cocaine usually takes the form of an off-white to yellowish-white solid. Cocaine hydrochloride is usually snorted or injected into the veins, whereas freebase and crack are usually smoked.
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Amphetamine and Methamphetamine (Forensic Science)
Almost all of the illicit amphetamine sold by street dealers is actually methamphetamine, also known as meth or crank. Compared with amphetamine, meth has much stronger effects on the body, and the effects last longer. Both drugs relieve fatigue, increase energy and confidence levels, and result in a general feeling of exhilaration. Users of this type of drug may appear anxious, talkative, sweaty, and euphoric. Chronic amphetamine or methamphetamine abuse can result in severe mental and physical problems. Meth addicts may experience delusions, hallucinations, and violent behavior. One common effect that long-term methamphetamine abusers experience is the sensation that bugs are crawling under their skin. Users may injure themselves trying to dig the “crank bugs” out of their bodies.
Amphetamines may be injected, snorted, smoked, or taken orally. Ice is a very pure form of methamphetamine that is ingested by smoking. The physical and mental effects of smoking ice are similar to those caused by crack cocaine use. The primary difference is that the effects of crack wear off in ten to twenty minutes, whereas those of ice last eight to sixteen hours.
For many years, production and distribution of street methamphetamine in the United States was controlled by motorcycle gangs. During the early 1990’s, however, Mexican drug traffickers gained control of the U.S. market. It is believed that up to 90...
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Heroin (Forensic Science)
Heroin belongs to the class of drugs known as opiates. These are natural or semisynthetic drugs made from the opium poppy. Illicit opium poppies are grown in many countries, including Afghanistan, Mexico, Burma, and Laos. Opium is produced in the root system of the plant and distributed to all of its tissues, with the majority of the opium collecting in the seedpods. Opium farmers make small cuts in the sides of the pods so that the milky opium sap bleeds from the incisions. Once this sap dries and hardens, the farmers scrape it off the seedpods. Bricks of this dried opium can be processed to extract morphine, which is then chemically converted to heroin.
One of the most common methods of ingesting heroin is through injection of the drug into a vein. Prior to injection, the heroin must be “cooked”: a small amount of the drug is mixed with water in a metal spoon, and the mixture is heated from below with a cigarette lighter to dissolve the drug. Most users inject the drug into the inside of the elbow. Over time, this can cause scarring, resulting in telltale “track marks.”
The effects of heroin use include pain relief, euphoria, respiratory depression, nausea, vomiting, and constipation. Heroin is extremely addictive. Long-term users risk physical dependence, infection of the heart lining and valves, and skin abscesses. Because they often share needles, they are also at great risk for contracting human immunodeficiency...
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GHB (Forensic Science)
Gamma-hydroxybutyrate, or GHB, is a member of a class of drugs often collectively termed “date rape” drugs. date rape can be defined as rape or other nonconsensual sexual activity between people who are known to each other. Other chemicals often implicated in date rape include ketamine, rohypnol, and alcohol.
GHB has both sedative and amnesiac effects. Because the drug is rapidly absorbed by the body, it produces initial effects within five to fifteen minutes of ingestion. Maximum effects of the drug are reached within twenty to thirty minutes and can last for one to six hours. The effects of GHB include relaxation, euphoria, enhanced sexuality, interference with speech and motor control, and unrousable heavy sleep. These effects are dependent on the dosage.
Virtually all of the GHB sold on the streets is produced in clandestine laboratories. Methods for producing the drug are described in the scientific literature as well as on the Internet. GHB is available as both a salty-tasting liquid and in powder form. Both forms of the drug readily dissolve in alcohol. Sexual predators can add GHB to the drinks of unsuspecting victims, causing them to experience severe intoxication or sleepiness. Because these victims are often unconscious during the subsequent attacks and may have difficulty remembering the details after regaining consciousness hours later, such drug-facilitated sexual assaults can be difficult to prosecute. Tests...
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Peroxide Explosives (Forensic Science)
With increasingly tight restrictions on the sale, possession, and use of commercial high explosives in the United States, a number of terrorist organizations have begun making their own explosive mixtures for use in attacks against civilian, government, and commercial targets. Of particular concern to law-enforcement agencies are peroxide explosives, as these types of explosives are much more difficult to detect than traditional TNT (trinitrotoluene) or plastic explosives.
Peroxide-based explosives can be found in liquid, gel, or powder form. A powerful liquid peroxide explosive can be made with a mix of concentrated hydrogen peroxide and concentrated ethyl alcohol. A solid fuel such as sugar or flour can be mixed with concentrated hydrogen peroxide to make a slurry or gel-like explosive. Alternatively, acetone can be mixed with concentrated hydrogen peroxide to form a dangerous powder explosive. This mixture is known as triacetone triperoxide, or TATP; it takes the form of a yellowish-white crystalline powder. It has a high vapor pressure and can sublimate directly from solid to vapor at room temperature. Studies have shown that within twenty minutes of ignition of a small sample of TATP, all visible residues disappear. This makes the detection of TATP at postblast crime scenes very difficult. Investigators must be very careful when handling TATP because of its sensitivity to heat, friction, and shock.
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Aretha, David. Drugs: Ecstasy and Other Party Drugs. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2005. Focuses on how to recognize drugs such as ketamine, GHB, LSD, ecstasy, and rohypnol and discusses how to avoid them.
Laci, Miklos. Illegal Drugs: America’s Anguish. Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 2004. Comprehensive guide to illegal drugs in the United States includes information on the origins and uses of various drugs and the effects of drug abuse. Offers interesting discussion of trends in drug use, routes of drug trafficking, drug addiction treatment programs, and debates concerning the merits of legalization of select illicit drugs.
LeVert, Suzanne. Drugs: Facts About Cocaine. Tarrytown, N.J.: Marshall Cavendish, 2006. Discusses cocaine use and abuse in detail, including issues such as cocaine and the law, powder versus rock cocaine, and how to live drug free. Personal stories of addiction and treatment provide a compelling narrative.
Menhard, Francha Roffé. Drugs: Facts About Amphetamines. Tarrytown, N.J.: Marshall Cavendish, 2006. Provides detailed information on the the history, use, and abuse of amphetamines and methamphetamine. Highlights the dangers of amphetamine abuse as well as the difficulty of treating addicts.
Monroe, Judy. Drug Dangers: LSD, PCP, and Hallucinogens. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2000. Explores the social, legal, and medical aspects of...
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