Tracing the origin of biologically active substances

The production, distribution and sale of prohibited substances (drugs) represent a worldwide problem nowadays. The most frequently sold substances are cannabis, cocaine (Fig. 1), amphetamines, LSD, heroin and others. The limitation of illegal production and distribution is a very complicated process – unless the origin of big producers is traced, it is almost impossible to stop the sale or minor distribution of drugs in the streets, clubs or other places. That is why the effort to create an efficient system of tracing the origin of individual drugs is becoming more pronounced, with the aim of revealing the primary drug manufacturer.

Fig. 1: Cocaine

Illegal drugs are usually complex mixtures of chemical substances and their composition varies to a large extent as a result of various conditions of their production in secret laboratories. A detailed chemical analysis of drug samples enables the measuring of relative concentrations of major, minor and trace substances. By means of suitable analytical methods, a chemical profile of various drugs can be created and a characteristic chemical signature (thumbprint) can be assigned to every sample. Within the decades, the drug market undergoes rapid changes, becomes more and more professional and employs new procedures in the drug production and distribution. That is why it is necessary to accommodate to these changes and continue improving the investigation procedures by using state-of-the-art procedures which are offered by the fast developing area of instrumental methods of chemical analysis. In the last years, the sensitivity of analytical methods has improved and also new methods have been developed regarding analyzers and their connection to highly sophisticated instrumental methods (LC-MS, LC-MS/MS, high resolution mass spectrometry, ICP/MS and NMR). These methods enable profiling with a substantially higher sensitivity and quality of the result. The gained information may be used to identify the selected substances important for criminal investigation (cocaine and amphetamines) – origin, means and extent of the drug distribution. The chemical profiles of drug samples collected in various time periods may also be used for an estimation of how long the particular laboratory functioned and for assessment of the extent of activities and the volume of the production. From the investigation point of view, profiling of drugs may be carried out either for the needs of the evidence proceedings, or for reporting purposes focusing on tracing and eliminating the centres of the organized crime.