Laboratory science:
More than just drug control

By Raggie Johansen

For more than 50 years, laboratory expertise has played a critical role in United Nations drug control efforts. The role of laboratories in modern society, however, is much broader than drug control. Although they impact on areas such as law enforcement, criminal justice and health care, their contribution is seldom recognized.

A laboratory technician prepares a field test kit for preliminary identification of drugs. UNODC has distributed around 10,000 such kits worldwide

"Labs generally have low visibility," says Barbara Remberg, acting Chief of the UNODC Laboratory and Scientific Section. "For example, if there's a large drug seizure somewhere, law enforcement and customs officials get lots of recognition and publicity. But there was a lab behind it to make sure that the seized material was indeed an illegal drug and not simply flour or sugar."

The main purpose of the UNODC Laboratory and Scientific Section is to assist Member States in developing drug laboratory capacity and expertise, particularly at the national level. Its staff train scientists, run quality control programmes, develop internationally recognized analytical methods and guidelines and provide drug reference samples as well as laboratory equipment.

The staff of the UNODC Laboratory and Scientific Section

The recent session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the key United Nations policy-making organ on drug-related issues, recognized the importance of laboratory expertise and expressed concern over the differences in technical sophistication between Member States' laboratory and scientific services. The Commission urged UNODC and countries with more advanced facilities to assist those with fewer resources.

Having an up-to-date, properly equipped laboratory staffed by professionals takes a lot of resources. It is expensive to set up and maintain, and demands continuous investment in equipment, staff development and drug samples for training. As the results of this are usually not seen immediately, many resource-strapped countries prioritize other tasks.

However, as Remberg explains, lack of laboratory capacity can impact profoundly on a society. For example, if the police cannot identify drugs found on detainees, prosecutions become difficult. And if emergency room doctors, particularly in countries where many rely on poorly funded public hospitals, have no way of knowing which drug a patient has been abusing, they will have trouble giving proper treatment.

In his opening statement to the CND, Thomas Schweich, United States Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, asked: "How can we stay on top of regulating newly-created chemical substances?" And it is, indeed, a challenge to stay abreast of rapidly changing drugs in today's global market.

A laboratory technican prepares drug samples for analysis

Drug precursor chemicals also keep evolving. Sandeep Chawla, Chief of UNODC's Policy Analysis and Research Branch, explains that precursors are readily available chemicals for use in a range of industries. At the same time, they are crucial for producing illicit drugs. For example, potassium permanganate is used worldwide as a disinfectant and for water purification, among other purposes. However, it is also used illicitly to turn coca plant material into cocaine. Therefore, it is important to ensure that dozens of precursor chemicals do not end up in the hands of criminals.

High-quality drug analysis facilities and expertise form part of the answer to Schweich's question, as legislators and policymakers depend on laboratories to provide them with accurate information on the production methods, precursor chemicals and composition of new drugs. Only through consistent investments in scientific capacity can countries ensure that national policy and legislation keep up with the rapid developments in illicit drug manufacturing.

Over the years, UNODC has assisted 175 laboratories in 120 countries, and trained almost 800 drug analysts. It also provides, for a nominal fee, drug and precursor field test kits for quick and simple preliminary identification by police officers. These kits can be tailored to the drug situation in the recipient's region. Around 10,000 kits have been distributed so far.

UNODC's quality assurance programme gives laboratories an opportunity to continually review their performance. Using their standard procedures, participating facilities analyse UNODC-provided drug and precursor samples, and send their results back to Vienna.

"Labs from all over the world participate in this scheme," Remberg says. "Once we receive the results, we prepare a detailed report comparing their analytic findings, anonymously of course, so that the labs know where they stand."

Having successfully provided drug analysis expertise for years, the UNODC Laboratory and Scientific Section is currently expanding its work by moving into forensics, aiming to assist Member States to use laboratory science in the fight against crime.

All Photos: Melitta Borovansky-K├Ânig