Role played by narcotics laboratories in the campaign against drug abuse and drug trafficking: a view from a developing country


Objectives of a narcotics laboratory
Where a narcotics laboratory should be located
Training of personnel
Identification and analysis of drugs
Co-operation with other services and institutions


Author: Juan Carlos GARCIA FERNANDEZ
Pages: 3 to 13
Creation Date: 1984/01/01

Role played by narcotics laboratories in the campaign against drug abuse and drug trafficking: a view from a developing country

JUAN CARLOS GARCIA FERNANDEZ Professor of Toxicology and Forensic Chemistry, Faculty of Biochemistry Pharmacy, University of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Argentina


The narcotics laboratory at the national level identifies drugs for abuse and their accompanying substances in suspected samples, determines the purity and the possible origin of illicit drugs, carries out drug-related research, particularly on new sources of drugs liable to abuse, and, when required by the police or courts of law, provides supportive expertise in drug trafficking cases. Precaution must be taken to ensure that samples to be examined are representative.

The university is a particularly appropriate setting for the location of a narcotics laboratory, especially if such a laboratory carries out complex work requiring assistance from other professional disciplines. Before new laboratory equipment is purchased, a careful study of requirements and financial resources should be made to ensure economical and optimum utilization of such equipment. In some situations the use of simple techniques, such as thin-layer chromatography, can be sufficient, while in others more sophisticated techniques may be required. Appropriate training of personnel is of particular importance for the effective functioning of a narcotics laboratory. The laboratory of the Department of Toxicology and Forensic Chemistry, University of Buenos Aires, provides for the training of personnel at three levels:

  1. The first level consists of basic training, which includes the use of kits for rapid identification of drugs in field conditions, for personnel from the police, gendarmerie, prefecture, customs and other agencies which deal with drug problems, but which have no previous skills in laboratory techniques;

  2. The second level is provided for professional laboratory personnel and usually lasts six months;

  3. The third level consists of two years' postgraduate university training for students who are expected to carry out complex laboratory work; an additional year is provided for trainees who are expected to assume responsibility in a laboratory unit.


The purpose of this paper is not to describe in minute detail each of the procedures used for investigating drugs of abuse, but rather to suggest a few guidelines on the basis of the author's experience and to indicate various aspects of analytical work that may be of interest to developing countries with limited facilities in this field.

Objectives of a narcotics laboratory

In combating drug trafficking and drug abuse, an analytical narcotics laboratory plays a basic role in the areas in which its support is required. This is true not only in the identification and analysis of samples seized in the illicit drug traffic, but also in the provision of laboratory support for determining the dependence potential of a given substance and in medical emergencies where a rapid and precise laboratory analysis can be of great value in the co-operative effort to save a life.

The objectives of a narcotics laboratory are determined by the requirements and economic possibilities of the country in which it is located. The extent to which a narcotics laboratory can achieve its objectives depends on a number of factors, such as basic infrastructure, financial support for the laboratory to provide equipment, the level of training and Skills of its personnel, working methods and the analytical criteria prescribed by its management.

The drug-related problems in a given country or region should determine the main analytical requirements of a laboratory. In countries where drugs are produced from natural products, identification of these drugs themselves can be of primary importance. In consuming countries, determining the degree of purity of the illicit drug, its accompanying substances and its origin may deserve more priority. In countries where narcotic and psychotropic substances are widely abused, analytical tests for investigating drugs in body fluids are Very important. These basic features are in no way exclusive since a given country may be used for transit of a drug or drugs to other countries whose markets are more lucrative for illicit traffic, and in such countries identification of drugs is of primary significance [ l] . A recent increased tendency towards the abuse of volatile solvents in a number of countries has presented particular difficulties in the identification and analysis of these substances.

The analyst who examines samples suspected of containing illicit drugs must take into account the fact that there is no limit to the types of materials used to conceal or disguise the presence of drugs. In investigating these cases, experience, intuition and even the sensory organs of the investigator play an important part, although a systematical laboratory analysis of a suspected material is most valuable [ 2] .

Narcotics laboratory investigation should be directed primarily towards the identification of drugs. The courts or the police, however, may require more detailed investigation to elucidate a particular situation that may be of interest [ 3] . In cases where the investigation of drugs of plant origin is required, it may be necessary to involve botanists and Customs experts who do not belong to the laboratory team.


Every precaution should be taken to ensure that the sample is truly representative. However perfectly an analysis is performed, it cannot improve the quality of the sample. Information sheets giving full details on how to take and preserve samples should be published and distributed to the technicians who deal with them. This practice has proved to be very useful at the laboratory of the Department of Toxicology and Forensic Chemistry of the Faculty of Biochemistry and Pharmacy of the University of Buenos Aires [ 4] .

A laboratory should basically be prepared to analyse drugs so as to contribute to the suppression of drug trafficking as well as the prevention and reduction of drug abuse.

The importance of urine analysis should be pointed out as a means of identifying cases of drug abuse owing to the possibility of determining in urine the presence of metabolites of opiates, barbiturates, amphetamines and other drugs [ 5] . Simple and inexpensive techniques, such as thin-layer chromatography can be used for this purpose although other more sophisticated techniques, such as radioimmunoassay, are available.

The analyst must always be aware of the possibility of being confronted with a combination of drugs, for example cannabis with coca paste or with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) [ 1] .

Where a narcotics laboratory should be located

Narcotics laboratories are relatively new services, having been developed in response to the need for coping with increasing drug-related problems. Their work is continually growing both in terms of the quantity to be done and of the diversification of methods used for investigating drugs of abuse.

A question arises as to whether a laboratory service of this type should be centralized or not. Centralization obviously encourages greater scientific specialization and use of more sophisticated equipment. However, there are certain practical reasons which make centralization undesirable. If a laboratory is too far away, it is difficult to provide the requesting authority with test results as promptly as required. Improved means of communication and transport can of course mitigate this difficulty. Apart from the cost of equipment and facilities, decentralization makes necessary additional training of personnel. This can be achieved through training courses patterned on the model to which the author will refer as one of the possible solutions for a developing country [ 4] , [ 6] .

The university is a particularly appropriate setting for the location of a narcotics laboratory, especially if its tasks are so complex as to require assistance from other specialists such as those in plant taxonomy, physiology, pharmacognosy, phytochemistry and alcoholic beverages.


When economic resources are limited, a careful study must be made before new equipment is purchased in order to avoid unnecessary dispersing of funds. The laboratory analyst must inquire:

  1. Whether the new equipment will significantly expand the scope of available services;

  2. Whether the same work can be done using other means which may be slower but give satisfactory results in terms of reliability and precision ;

  3. Whether the expected frequency of use of the new equipment will justify the investment;

  4. Whether the same equipment may be accessible in some other way. If the equipment purchases are carefully considered, the required balance can be achieved between the available funds, which are often limited in a developing country, and the job to be done [ 6] .

Training of personnel

If the function of a narcotics laboratory is to be extended to cover a larger area or the whole country, training of personnel takes on particular importance. The objective is to provide training in analytical methods to laboratory personnel who sometimes work under differing conditions as regards the availability of equipment, physical facilities and even the scope of the analytical work required. Therefore, the training task must address various levels of preparation.

The experience gained in the Buenos Aires laboratory of the Department of Toxicology and Forensic Chemistry [ 4] is presented as an example. For the past five years, a course has been given regularly to postgraduate residents in toxicology. The course lasts two years, with an additional year for the trainees who are expected to be in charge of laboratory units. The participants in this training, who completed their undergraduate university studies no more than three years previously, are selected on the basis of an admission examination. The course comprises the training programme in two intoxication centres and Special programmes in pharmacology, analytical chemistry, enzymology, clinical toxicology, hygiene and health and radioisotope methods. The programme also includes a series of visits to the forensic laboratory and morgue, and to the National Social Rehabilitation Centre, and attendance at the events relating to toxicology that take place in Buenos Aires, such as seminars, congresses and Conferences. The participants are granted Scholarships by the Ministry of Public Health and Social Action.

The identification and analysis of psychoactive drugs are carried out in co-operation with the intoxication centres and hospital emergency services in Buenos Aires and the rest of the country. At the same time, drugs, such as cannabis, cocaine, depressants and amphetamines are tested in body fluids of abusers in response to inquiries and as part of regular training of students in biochemistry. Professionals from the most remote parts of the country account for a large proportion of the participants in the training course because one of the priority objectives of the course is to enable the trainees to work independently in those areas. After they assume such responsibility, advice is provided from the Buenos Aires laboratory as required.

During the training period, the participants have the opportunity to operate single- and double-beam visible ultraviolet spectrophotometers, a gas-liquid chromatograph, an atomic absorption spectrophotometer, a thermic spotter, specially used with cannabis, different kinds of thin-layer chromatographs, and other laboratory equipment.

This is considered a high level of training that can be provided in a consultancy laboratory service of this type within the university.

The residents in postgraduate training courses are responsible for providing basic first-level training for personnel from the police, gendarmerie, prefecture, customs and other agencies which deal with drug problems, but which have no previous skills in using laboratory techniques. Personnel from these agencies attend training courses in the use of kits for rapid field identification of drugs of abuse, according to the programme of the Biochemical Investigations Committee of the National Commission on Drug Addiction and Narcotic Drugs [ 7] . These drug identification kits are prepared by the laboratory of the Department of Toxicology and Forensic Chemistry, University of Buenos Aires [ 4] under an agreement between the Ministry of Public Health and Social Action and the Faculty of Biochemistry and Pharmacy of the University of Buenos Aires, which stipulates that the Ministry shall supply the funds required, while the Faculty prepares the kits.

Over the past three years of work, more than 500drug identification kits have been prepared, using a system of distribution in pre-analysed neutral glass ampoules. The aim is to make it possible to preserve the reagents, including those for cocaine, for approximately two years, thus allowing sufficient time for fresh supplies to reach their destination. The residents in the postgraduate training course prepare these drug identification kits for distribution, mainly to frontier areas of the country. The system has been functioning effectively.

In this way, the personnel of the agencies receiving the kits acquire adequate training in their use. The kits are used in the field, for quick identification of opium, morphine and its derivatives, coca and cocaine, LSD, Cannabis, amphetamines and their derivatives, barbiturates, methaqualone, and others.

In between this basic first level of training for personnel who are not skilled in laboratory work and the postgraduate third level of training that lasts two or three years, there is a second intermediate level of training for professionals who cannot attend the residency course for two years but participate in training for a shorter period of time, usually six months.


The equipment used is largely dependent on the objectives and economic possibilities of the laboratory. In addition to the drugs and glassware, the minimum equipment includes: balances, a microscope, centrifuges, a short-and-long ultraviolet lamp, tubs and materials for thin-layer chromatography. The availability of a spectrophotometer operating in the visible ultraviolet spectrum range is indispensable for investigation of the identity and Composition of certain drugs, and for their quantitative determination.

The use of gas-liquid Chromatography provides a variety of additional important alternatives in the analysis of drugs which can be supplemented and expanded by the use of liquid-liquid Chromatography. A very high level of performance is reached with the use of a mass spectrometer, particularly when applied to gas-liquid chromatography.

Infrared spectrophotometry is of particular use in confirming the identity of solid or liquid drugs.

When a laboratory is working on biological samples, the use of enzyme-immunoassay shortens and Simplifies the work and makes it more flexible. The drawback is that the equipment is costly.

Figure I

Cuts of stalks of Cannabis sativa made with pruning shears

Full size image: 36 kB, Figure I

Figure II

Cuts of stalks of Cannabis sativa caused by spontaneous or induced tearing

Full size image: 38 kB, Figure II

Figure III

Cut of stalk of Cannabis sativa caused by a wrench

Full size image: 43 kB, Figure III

Figure IV

Cut of stalk of Cannabis sativa caused by a tear

Full size image: 40 kB, Figure IV

Figure V

Psilocybe cubensis , a fungus growth an dung of the zebu of north-eastern Argentina

Full size image: 57 kB, Figure V

Figure VI

Psilocybe cubensis , a fungus removed from zebu dung

Full size image: 28 kB, Figure VI

Figure VII

A blossom of Datura arborea , an infusion of which has been abused by drug-dependent persons

Full size image: 8 kB, Figure VII

It is therefore possible to carry out drug analysis using a range of equipment of growing complexity, which makes previously unimagined goals accessible and gives a greater possibility to the laboratory analyst to meet diverse needs.

Identification and analysis of drugs

The work involved in the identification and analysis of drugs is organized in accordance with the nature of the samples. The following subdivision of samples is suggested, which is a slightly modified classification presented by Villabain Blanco [ 3] : (a)Samples of plant origin; (b)solid Substances in powder form; (c)tablets or dragées; (d)injectible solutions; and (e)biological samples.

The samples of plant origin, which are most frequently found, are cannabis, opium or coca, their extracts and derivatives. The range of these samples may still be expanded if one considers that, depending on the region of drug production and location of the laboratory, khat, peyote, psilocybin, ayahuasco and other drugs of plant origin may be encountered.

With regard to cannabis, a narcotics laboratory may be required to do the following work:

  1. To identify a plant belonging to the species Cannabis sativa L.;

  2. To identify plant fragments such as the shredded cannabis plant for cigarettes;

  3. To investigate cannabis in an ordinary tobacco cigarette or cigarette butt, or on a paper for rolling cigarettes, or on the fingers of the user;

  4. To determine the amount of active principles in a cannabis sample;

  5. To identify cannabis seeds and determine whether they are viable;

  6. To determine the age and type of cannabis plants, their way of cutting, quality and other characteristics related to a laboratory analysis.

Baker and his co-workers point out that the amount of the components of cannabis plant and cannabis resin, determined by thin-layer analysis, as well as the characteristics and physical appearance, are valuable in attempting to determine the geographical origin of a drug [ 8] .

Concerning coca and cocaine, a laboratory is most commonly required to do the following work:

  1. To identify coca leaves, coca paste or cocaine in samples;

  2. To determine the amount of cocaine in a sample;

  3. To analyse cocaine in the form of the salt or the base, and to determine the amount of cocaine in a sample seized;

  4. To determine alkaloids in coca paste.

Thin-layer chromatography and ultraviolet spectrophotometry are common techniques used for drug identification and analysis. In addition, chromatic tests are used mainly for identification of barbiturates, glutethimide, meprobamate and morphine and opium alkaloids.

Barbiturates are also identified by the use of microcrystal tests. Barbiturates are freed by the action of an acid which causes it to react subsequently with a reagent; the resulting crystalline structure is observed under the microscope.

Hydrolysis is used for identification of metabolites of benzodiazepines. Subsequent use of more sophisticated techniques such as gas-liquid Chromatography or high-pressure liquid-liquid chromatography is of great additional value in identification of the drug or alkaloid and its eventual evaluation [ 9] - [ 12] .

Co-operation with other services and institutions

The laboratory may need the supportive help of a photographic laboratory for illustrating and documenting work done, which is particularly important for the expertise provided to courts of law.

The author has provided photographs relating to an inquiry into whether cuts observed in Cannabis sativa plants had been made manually or with mechanical instruments. Figures I to IV illustrate this together with the samples of cuts of the cannabis plants made in various ways.

Not only must co-operation be sought in specific cases from specialized laboratories, but the expertise of a specialist in drug law can be extremely useful, especially when the problem is being dealt with before the courts.

A Specialist in botany can provide useful support in identifying plant materials, which may sometimes be only plant parts such as seeds, leaves, fruits or stems. A botanist can help in determining the stage of development of a plant. Sometimes the expertise of a mycologist, parasitologist or a specialist in cacti is required,


In addition to the identification and analysis of drugs of abuse the narcotics laboratory may carry out scientific research in support of the combat against drug trafficking and drug abuse.

The following are examples of the research on the new sources of drugs carried out by the laboratory of the Department of Toxicology and Forensic Chemistry, Faculty of Biochemistry and Pharmacy, University of Buenos Aires.

Psilocybe cubensis

There were police reports that, in the provinces on the coast and in the north-eastern part of Argentina, young drug addicts were abusing a new drug. They used infusions obtained from a fungus which grows at certain times of the year on the dung of the zebu, a ruminant mammal of the Bovidaefamily.

Systematic study of the samples collected Showed that the fungus in question was Psilocybe cubensiswhich contained psilocybin [ 13] . The question was, however, what amounts of psilocybin were contained in the fungus and Whether there were other active principles in it. The United Nations Division of Narcotic Drugs provided the reference sample of the drug for research, which is progressing satisfactorily.

The photographs in figures V and VI Show what the fungus is like and how its grows on the zebu dung.

Datura arborea

The following is another example of research on a new source of drugs. It was known that young addicts in the north-western part of Argentina were taking certain vegetable infusions for purposes of abuse. Scientific research was initiated to identify the plant species and the active principles. It was also intended to ascertain whether these plant species were produced in the harvest area and the amount of the active principles formed in the plant.

The plant species, identified as Datura arborea, was already known for its psychoactive properties. Study was initiated on samples of the plant and on the various types of infusions. The different proportions of tropanederivative, an alkaloid identified as active principle were found. The amount of this alkaloid varied with the geographic area and the seasons of the year. The results of the first two research programmes on the subject were presented at the last two meetings on toxicology in Argentina [ 14] , [ 15] .

The photograph in figure VII shows the plant studied.


In the central, western and north-western parts of Argentina many types of thistles grow. One of these, commonly called cardón is used for purposes of abuse. Detailed Studies carried out at the University of San Luis have shown that mescaline is one of its active principles.

Claviceps purpurea

ln the coastal areas of the province of Buenos Aires, in large areas of the damp lowlands, a number of wild graminaceous plants such as esparto have been found to harbour a parasitic fungus of rye, Claviceps purpurea. The active principles contained in the sclerotium of this fungus, derived from lysergic acid, have extensive therapeutic uses, but may be altered by processes of organic synthesis for the production of LSD.

The foregoing examples clearly show that a narcotics laboratory cannot confine its work to the identification and analysis of drugs, which is its primary and basic function, but must also be prepared to carry out such scientific research as may be required in the country concerned.



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