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BCA lab plays a key role in the state’s battle against synthetic drugs

They’re often the most expensive and time-consuming substances to test, lab staff explained to lawmakers, who hope to tighten laws concerning their use.

Forensic scientist Eric Grunwald shows off a number of synthetic cannabinoids.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

Eric Grunwald, a forensic scientist with the state, holds up a tiny bottle filled with a few grains of the pure form of a single synthetic drug.

It’s one of hundreds of similar bottles stored at the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s St. Paul lab.

The chemicals, which are highly regulated, are necessary for identifying drugs submitted for analysis during criminal investigations. They can cost up to $350 per bottle and have to be specially ordered from drug manufacturers.

“This one it looks like it’s almost empty, but that’s literally about what you get,” he says, passing the container around for others to see. “A small fortune,” one state lawmaker remarks, looking at the boxes of vials sitting on a laboratory counter during a tour of the facility last week.

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Synthetic drugs, which lawmakers are hoping to combat with additional legislation next year, make up a small percentage of the substances tested in the St. Paul facility. Scientists there are used to seeing methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin and deal with thousands of cases a year.

But those drugs are simple to test for, and might only take a few hours to examine under the right conditions. Their pure forms also can be obtained relatively inexpensively.

New designer drugs, such as synthetic cannabinoids and bath salts that are amphetamine derivatives, are a different story.

They’re often the most expensive and time-consuming substances to test, lab staff explained to visiting lawmakers who are exploring the problem.

Some cases take weeks or months to process. State scientists, who often have no idea what they’re supposed to be comparing the chemical samples with, must examine data, speak with colleagues nationwide who might have seen the chemicals first, and eventually order new compounds from drug manufacturers – all just to attempt to compare a confiscated sample with a pure version of itself.

“These compounds that they’re looking for, the standards don’t exist,” Lab Director Catherine Knutson explained. “It’s like a control.”

Glenn Langenburg showing off a GC-MS machine
MinnPost photo by James Nord
Glenn Langenburg, forensic science supervisor of the drug chemistry lab, demonstrates a GC-MS machine.

In 2012, when the lab tested nearly 4,500 drug cases, there was an average turnaround time of 38 days for each drug analysis, according to a BCA annual report. It’s important to note that the increase in counties submitting samples, as well as updated synthetic drug laws, played a part in that timeframe.

“It’s not a huge effect overall numbers-wise, but because [new designer drugs] take so much time and energy and resources, they can have a huge impact on our ability to process the rest of the cases that come in the door,” Knutson told lawmakers.

Drug chemists are designing new versions of the drugs, usually with only tiny differences, to evade the legal system and continue selling the dangerous chemicals. “The changes are very subtle,” Grunwald said.

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“Once these substances were regulated or made illegal, we didn’t see them again, because these guys are nimble,” Knutson added. “They’re basically the drug chemistry’s equivalent to computer hackers. You put a road block in front of them, and they’re going to find a way around it.”

At a special committee hearing last week, DFL Rep. Erik Simonson and other legislators, heard from experts and advocates for changes to synthetic drug laws. Policymakers are looking to become more nimble, too.

Those solutions might include a “look-alike” law that would classify chemical analogs of current illegal drugs. It could also include greater authority for the state Board of Pharmacy to tackle synthetic drugs, and enhanced education.

“We’re just trying to look at options and to try to put another piece of the puzzle, if you will, to get at this issue,” Simonson said ahead of the committee hearing.

But staff at the BCA said that the new laws, while helpful, might not be enough.

DFL Rep. Erik Simonson examining a package of synthetic cannabinoids.
MinnPost photo by James Nord
DFL Rep. Erik Simonson examines a package of synthetic cannabinoids.

“I don’t know in our form of government how we could ever stay ahead of it with what we’re doing right now,” said Drew Evans, an assistant superintendent at the BCA. “We’re always going to be just a little bit behind.”

Grunwald asked lawmakers to make the dates that chemicals become illegal more uniform. He said such changes would help when testifying in court cases.

In a separate room, off of the lab, several gas chromatograph-mass spectrometers hum, testing different samples.

Glenn Langenburg, forensic science supervisor of the drug chemistry lab, explains that the scientists have enough “throughput” to test many samples with the advanced machinery.

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That automation, he said, has sped up the number of samples that can be separated and tested, but analysis of synthetics still takes a long time.

“There is no routine,” he says.