Why and when is forensic drug chemistry used?

A sophisticated law enforcement operation carried out in 1989 against Mexican cocaine trafficker Rafael Munoz Talavera captured 20 tons of cocaine in a warehouse in Southern California worth nearly $7 billion. The operation started with a tip about a suspicious truck parked in front of a warehouse and ended with six warehouse workers sentenced to prison. To get those convictions, prosecutors needed to prove the substance in the warehouse was cocaine and that it was intended for distribution. 3

Bricks of bulk cocaine, a common packaging method used to transport drugs for trafficking. (Courtesy of NFSTC)

Forensic drug chemistry is used in cases involving the possession, trafficking or manufacturing of a suspected illegal substance. An investigator with a reasonable suspicion that an individual or individuals are in possession of an illegal substance may perform presumptive testing at the scene. Depending on the results of the presumptive test and agency procedures, samples will typically then go to the forensic laboratory for confirmatory testing. Analysts answer basic questions about suspect materials including:

Illegal substances can be involved in many types of crime situations including rape scenes, overdoses, burglaries, murder scenes, clandestine drug manufacturing such as methamphetamine labs, domestic and other abuse scenes, traffic accidents, and many others. Law enforcement or other agencies may confiscate drugs directly from users or dealers, seize large amounts in raids of suspected manufacturing locations or grow houses, capture substances during transportation to or from the U.S., or discover stashes due to other crimes. In crimes where illegal drugs are involved, punishments are more severe than non-drug related crimes. Confirmatory testing in the laboratory is required for prosecution and appropriate sentencing of suspects.

One of the primary functions of forensic drug chemists, in addition to testing materials in the laboratory, is to present testimony in court. Forensic chemists are routinely required to serve as expert witnesses during criminal procedures for cases in which they have performed confirmatory testing. This testimony will often include discussions of laboratory procedures, quality control within the laboratory, maintenance and calibration of the instruments used in testing as well as the details of the analysis report.

3 “Record Cocaine Bust Started with a Telephone Tip,” Chicago Tribune online, (1989) accessed 8/20/2013.

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