Justice Today

To Catch a Drug

October 03, 2022 National Institute of Justice Season 1 Episode 21
Justice Today
To Catch a Drug
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

NIJ communications assistant Josh Mondoro explores novel psychoactive substances with NIJ scientist Frances Scott. She explains what NPSs are, current research in the field, and the practical impact of this research for law enforcement and policymakers. Read the transcript.

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SPEAKER 1: Welcome to Justice Today, the official podcast of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, where we shine a light on cutting edge research and practices and offer an in-depth look at what we’re doing to meet the biggest public safety challenges of our time. Join us as we explore how funding, science, and technology help us achieve strong communities.

JOSH MONDORO: Hi, everybody, welcome to the show, my name is Josh Mondoro, I’m your host for today. I’m a Communications Assistant at the National Institute of Justice, and I’m very happy to be talking with Dr. Frances Scott today. She’s got a lot of enthusiasm about this topic, and, yeah, I’m very happy to have her on and hear her expertise. So thank you and welcome.

FRANCES SCOTT: Thanks, Josh. I’m glad to be here. For everybody listening, my name is Frances Scott, I am a Physical Scientist within the Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences at the National Institute of Justice, NIJ, and I manage portfolios dealing with seized drugs and forensic toxicology.

JOSH MONDORO: Yeah. And today we’re going to get into something pretty specific in that whole area. We’re going to talk about novel psychoactive substances. Why don’t we just start with: what are novel psychoactive substances? And you’re probably going to use the abbreviation throughout; we’ll call them NPS. So what are NPS? And just, yeah, give us maybe some examples of that, just kind of help folks out.

FRANCES SCOTT: Absolutely. So novel psychoactive substances, or new psychoactive substances, is one of the terms that are used to refer to these drugs that are--that are not your standard ones that you see all the time, that are often created to get around scheduling laws. So they may look like a currently scheduled drug but then have a slight modification to the chemical structure that may or may not change their activity in terms of like whether they’ll still get you high, whether it’ll get you as high, but may--especially with some of the older scheduling, then you wouldn’t be able to say this is not an illicit compound. Designer drugs is another term that you might’ve heard. Some of us--there’s a lot of--there’s a lot of terms that are used and nobody really likes any--there’s not one term that everybody likes, you know, because the argument is, well, they’re not really new because most of them are patented somewhere, they’ve all been, you know, Janssen made a bunch of the fentanyl analogs, some of these others have other--scientists who have--who have synthesized, who have made, like, tons of these things and patented them. So in that sense, they’re not new, but it’s more to do with what--how new they are to the drug scene and that newness might be decades but not centuries as cocaine, and heroine, and marijuana, and some of these things that have been around forever. 

And you asked about some examples, so some of the ones that you’re, you know, that the listeners will have heard of, everyone will probably remember the bath salt craze. Bath salts by the way is--they were labeled that way, they were not something you should put in your bath, or your hot tub, it is not a ‘Calgon take me away’ kind of moment, but they were labeled that way because one of the three parts of the analog act, the Federal Analog Act, has to do with whether it’s intended for human consumption. And so they would label these things as bath salts, as pool cleaner, as fish tank cleaner, and then they would slap a label under that says “not intended for human consumption,” wink-wink. So bath salts, which is actually primarily a group of compounds known as cathinones, those are more of your, sort of party drugs, more of a rave kind of, or an ecstasy sort of similar kind of thing; cannabinoids, everybody remembers, Spice and K2. So that the was “legal” pot, and so those are substances that look like compounds that are found in marijuana. So those are two of the most recent ones, and then of course we got into opioids and fentanyl, and fentanyl analogs, so things that look like fentanyl.

JOSH MONDORO: It sounds like all of those things are, like, any time a new version of those pops up, then that just kind of opens a whole can of worms because I think you said earlier when we were talking that you’re kind of like with--when it comes to like forensics and toxicology, like, that’s kind of at the touch point between, like, science and the law, and so it sounds like these new drugs’ just kinda crack that open, whenever they pop up.

FRANCES SCOTT: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. Yeah. So--and so sometimes that’s the case, so sometimes you’ll--a lot of times you’ll see these sort of waves of, “Okay. Now we’re having the cathinones and then they sort of die out or are reduced to just a few that we’re seeing. Now we’re having cannabinoids, but now marijuana’s legal in a lot of places for recreational use, so now that’s kind of dying off.” So not that it goes away but, yeah, that can--so when you see something that is a new kind of compound, sometimes that heralds ‘now we’re going to see all of these things that are like it.’ But one of the problems with NPS research and with testing for NPS is it’s really hard to predict which things are going to stay around, which things are going to be here for three months and disappear again, which things are never going to go beyond sort of the one or maybe two. So there’s something called N-bombs, which I’m not going to get into what that stands for just because it’d be very boring, but there was the thought, “Oh, maybe there’s going to be lots of the N-bombs.” Well, there weren’t, there just weren’t. It never really took off the way some of the others did.

JOSH MONDORO: So it sounds like every time these come up, there’s just a lot of avenues that research could go off into. We were talking, and you kind of explained to me that there are kind of two areas of research for this, that there’s the seized drugs research and there’s the toxicology research, and you did a great job explaining to me, who has no science knowledge whatsoever, what the difference is between those. Could you explain just kind of what those two areas are and how they’re different? Because they’re kind of similar but they are--they are different.

FRANCES SCOTT: They are, they’re related but not the same and, yeah, I’ve had to explain it a few times, but it’s real simple. Seized drug chemistry is looking at the actual drug, the white powder, the leaf, the vape liquid, whatever the substance is, that the drug is in, that’s what these seized drugs is looking at; we’re looking at that substance itself. Toxicology, forensic toxicology, is interested in looking for the drugs in some part of the human body, so in blood, in urine, in hair, in breath, in oral fluid.

JOSH MONDORO: Yeah. So what are some of the things that the--yeah. So what are the--some of the research needs in each of those different areas?

FRANCES SCOTT: Yeah. So for both, both are impacted by this ever-changing market, right? So this fact that it’s so hard to get on top of what’s being seen because we also--we’re a big country, right? So the--what we’re--what Ohio is seeing may be very different from what Virginia’s seeing, maybe it’s very different from what Tennessee is seeing, for lots of different reasons, based on the suppliers, based on, you know, just various factors that would cause different things to pop up in different areas. And we don’t have, or haven’t had, a great mechanism for sharing some of that information. That’s where the seized drugs and tox, by the way, the more they can work together, those two different sets of scientists. And also work with law enforcement. So there’s a few good examples of that around the country where New Jersey’s got a great program in place where they are very good with their pipeline of information sharing amongst law enforcement, amongst emergency rooms, et cetera, but it’s just really hard to predict, right? And so that’s a challenge for both the drug chemist and the toxicologist because if you don’t know it’s there, it’s not like CSI; you really can’t just put the sample onto the instrument and it says, “Here’s what the thing is.” If it’s not something that is in your method, that you’ve validated your scientific method for, then you’re not going to be able to identify it. So that’s a struggle for both. 

And then for the drug chemists, you can have the struggle of--because they do get asked often to weigh in on, “Is this legal or is it not?” You know, you said you don’t have a real science background, neither does most lawyers. So a lawyer’s looking at this and saying, “Okay. Now you’ve given me this long chemical name, I don’t know if that means that it’s illegal or not.” And so that can be challenging for the drug chemists because they have to look at the federal scheduling but they also have to look at their state scheduling and see whether it fits within the definition, either by name or by class within their state’s scheduling. For toxicologists, the challenge is, “Okay, now I can identify what it is, I can identify how much there is, probably; what does that mean?” So interpretation is a huge piece of toxicology because you’re being asked to weigh in on, “Was this an impairing drug? Is this person driving under the influence of drugs, DUID? Is this person--is--did this contribute to this person’s death?” So both on the pre-mortem and post-mortem side of things, you’re trying to interpret what those numbers mean. And if it’s a new thing, that only exists really before this, it doesn’t exist anywhere in the scientific literature, we haven’t done studies on rats to find out, you know, what the--what the lethal dose is, it’s going to be very--or what the impairing dose is, what are the, you know, the impacts on driving performance; it’s very difficult to be able to render--it makes the interpretation more challenging. It makes it challenging to render an opinion about all that.

JOSH MONDORO: Yeah. That plays into the class scheduling, right? Like, if you have--if it’s new, you don’t know where it goes and then kind of when you figure out, okay, here’s what class it’s in, then you have folks who can develop another--a different version to get around the class schedule and then, like, you have this whole, like, vicious cycle that’s going on.

FRANCES SCOTT: Yeah. And the class scheduling, I will say, is relatively new, that really is a response to the more recent--I’ll say more recent because I just actually—had an article published a little bit ago that talked about the fact that, you know, in reality, NPS are not new. There’s been this kind of--these different classes of drugs popping up from time to time, but more recently is when we said, “Oh, we need to do something different with scheduling.” So at the federal level and many states copy of the federal or very similar to the federal scheduling, and so usually drugs are scheduled by name, you say this particular substance, you know, fentanyl is a Schedule II drug. 

What we moved towards was class scheduling and some--so there was--because the DEA was having to do like emergency scheduling because things were popping up and people were either dying or becoming very ill, and so they said, “Okay. Now, were going to schedule this, here’s these 15.” What--so what it’ll, you know, several states, I’ll say, have done is to have this sort of class scheduling and so that’s where you say, “Cannabinoids, or now all the cannabinoids are scheduled and here’s what that--now here’s what it takes to be a cannabinoid.” Because if you’re naming a particular substance, then that’s it, we know--we all know what that--well, we chemists all know what that is; we can draw you the structure and we can say, “Yes, it’s the thing,” or “No, it’s not this thing.” But when you talk about a class, you have to be able to define, “Okay. What’s the--what’s the skeleton of it, what are the parts that can’t change or it’s no longer a part of this.” And then what kinds of what we call substitutions, if you’re going to hang things off of that skeleton, where can you do that and still have it be part of this class? What kinds of things can you hang off of it and have it still be part of this class? And so that can get very complicated. 

And that can get into also what we talked about, which is you have to be careful then that you’re not accidentally scheduling something that’s actually a licit drug, that’s a helpful drug, that’s a pharmaceutical, or something of that nature. So scheduling is tricky, and then making determinations based on scheduling is tricky because, you know, lawyers and politicians write laws and write scheduling acts, and so, you know, and I--they do their best to get it right but they don’t necessarily have that background, and so it can get very tricky if they don’t have a lot of input, and even then it can still be hard. I mean, that’s why the DEA has, you know, people that they--that they have just to do this, just to think about things like what needs to be scheduled and what does that look like.

JOSH MONDORO: Yeah. So you have a bunch of people like me who have no idea what they’re--what they’re talking about. Yeah. So I--is that--that sounds like an area potentially for future research or current research need I guess.


JOSH MONDORO: Scheduling or is that not quite it? It’s going elsewhere?

FRANCES SCOTT: Scheduling is a little outside of our purview, but what we do have, remember when I said it’s hard to get that information together? Well, we funded the development of an online resource, NPS discovery, through the Center for Forensic Science Research and Education, and it’s--they’ve been able to form some fabulous partnerships, get some samples, because they are partnered with NMS labs, which is probably the biggest, or one of the biggest, private tox labs in the country. So they’re able to get samples from NMS that have been sent to them, and then they have through our funding, been able to fund people, to spend that time. Because it’s really a bit of a needle in a haystack kind of a thing, if--remember when I said if you’re not looking for it, you’re not going to see it? So, that’s because you’re doing targeted types of evaluation. So in order to find new things you have to do an untargeted approach, and it’s a lot of data, and it takes a long time to get through it, you know, it takes someone dedicated to that task. But if you’re able to do that, what they’ve been able to do is have several of the first reports of drugs within either seized drug samples because they’ve partnered with CBP, I’m pretty sure it’s CBP, and/or in tox samples within the U.S., and in fact some of their work has been then cited by the DEA when the DEA then went and emergency scheduled those things. 

So that’s huge. Because we’re normally playing catch-up. We’re normally--we’re out there on Bluelight and Erowid trying to find out what the, you know, the drug using community is saying they’re using and then trying to kind of back engineer into that, and then see where it is. With this new tool, they’ve been able to not only find it; then they can go back retrospectively, look through all the old, now they--now we found it, now we plug that in, run all these old data files through, and now we can find where it first showed up, where we first saw it. So maybe it was three months ago is actually that first time that showed up, or a month ago.

JOSH MONDORO: That’s awesome. I mean, that sounds like it’s saving years of backup, like you said, instead of playing catch-up, like, that sounds like it shortens the timeline, drastically.

FRANCES SCOTT: It really does and I think--I don’t know that I could definitively prove it right now but a lot of times what we see is we see a drug come onto the scene and then there’s, you know, state scheduling, or there’s EEA scheduling, it falls off and the next thing comes in to sort of takes its place. I’m simplifying a little bit, but that’s kind of the pattern we see. Well now if you don’t have six month to, you know, sort of have that drug on the market, because we found it, you know, it’s been found a month after it started, you know, showing up in case samples, now it’s getting scheduled. Now you’re shortening the kind of life cycle in some of those drugs.

JOSH MONDORO: Yeah. That’s phenomenal, that’s really awesome. Wow. Thank you so much, Frances, for coming on here and explaining this complex topic of novel psychoactive substances. I learned a whole lot, so thank you so much for giving us your time and all that.

FRANCES SCOTT: Thanks for the opportunity Josh, I’m always happy to talk about the world of seized drugs and forensic toxicology here at NIJ.

JOSH MONDORO: And thank you also to our listeners for tuning in because I’m sure that they learned a lot as well. Please stay tuned for our future episodes.

SPEAKER 2: To learn more about today’s topic or about NIJ, visit the links in the episode description and join us for new episodes every month. 

Opinions or point of view expressed in this episode represent a consensus of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. Any products and manufacturers discussed in this episode are presented for informational purposes only and do not constitute product approval or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Research complications
Toxicology vs. seized drugs
Drug scheduling