The War on Drugs – Notes from the Front

Early in his first term, President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. I had just joined the Drug Enforcement Administration, in whose forensic labs I spent the next quarter century. Within a year or so, I was at headquarters, where, among other pursuits, I was tasked with trying to figure out how a small coterie of barely literate French “chemists” were producing the finest heroin ever made.

Heroin was the first target in the “war”. We were interested in knowing the way the stuff was made, so that we could “remote sense” where they were cooking. Stepped-up intel had produced a recipe or two. All we had to do was translate the bad French. I knew some of the language, being of French descent (and having studied it in high school and college). The next step was to apply the best technology available at the time to find where the cooking was taking place.

Heroin manufacture starts with opium poppies, from which a sappy, milky substance is painstakingly extracted and dried out, producing raw opium. The material is then smuggled to a place where morphine is extracted from it (roughly 10% by weight of the raw opium). Morphine was then smuggled into France, where it was chemically converted to heroin. Without boring you with details (easily found on the Internet, if you need them), morphine was reacted with benzene and acetic anhydride to form diacetylmorphine, aka heroin.

Any attempt to sense a facility actively making heroin needed to zero in on volatile chemicals (those which, basically, you can smell). Benzene and acetic anhydride were both suitable. At the time (early 70’s), a contracter fitted a helicopter with a vacuum to draw vapors, sucked them into an instrument known as a mass spectrometer, which detects and identifies chemicals by measuring their molecular weight.

To try this scheme out, Uncle Sam sent me to the Mohave Desert, along with my boss and a DEA Special Agent. My task was to set up a heroin lab and start cooking, while the contractor would fly above us with the helo and mass spectrometer. (I was sent to the local Kmart to get supplies, which included a crab pot my family used for years afterward. We brought the morphine and chemicals with us from Washington; Kmart was out of stock……).

Ultimately, the attempt was a failure. The technology was not “mature” enough. I found out years later that when they tried out a prototype in France, all they detected were dry cleaners and wineries. Oh well. Nothing ventured…..(What did you do in the war, Daddy?)

Coronavirus: Random Thoughts

Clueless Red State Governors

Georgia -Just found out within last 48 hours that the virus can be transmitted even from asymptomatic people….(been common knowledge for at least two months before that utterance…Who knew?)

-South Dakota is not New York. We don’t need these closures, distancing measures, etc. (Tell that to Smithfield packing plant employees, where a “cluster” now exists…I guess there are some similarities after all….)

Government People

Coronavirus is nothing new. After all, its name is Covid-19; this is the 19th iteration of the germ (actually, the “19” in the name is the year it first appeared, making it well, new; it’s why they call it “novel”.) Perhaps Kellyanne Conway’s observations were taken out of context. Sure hope so.

Conservative Talk Show Hosts

Coronavirus is basically a common cold-type virus. Why all the fuss? (About 2 million people worldwide have caught this cold, and many have died. Medal of Freedom holder Rush Limbaugh might need to fact check, for once)

Is this even a pandemic, wonders Bill Bennett (former Education Department cabinet secretary; author of the Book of (Republican?) Virtues. If more than 2 million people in 184 countries (that we know of) have the disease, might this not constitute one?

More Thoughts

Biology is not my long suit. I became a chemist, because it’s much easier to understand. What I do know is that viruses may or may not be living things (I think there is some dispute), and they cannot exist outside of a host. This one is particularly contagious. Therefore, to rid us of this plague, we must deprive it of hosts. It appears that social distancing of at least 6 feet renders it unlikely to reach another host, along with wearing facial barriers (masks) to block body emanations, such as saliva. After an unnecessarly late start, social distancing appears to be working, wherever it has been implemented.

Unfortunately, we have had to tank the economies of most of the world, which has caused untold suffering by mostly poor people and minorities. Efforts to alleviate these effects have been, at best, sporadic. Schools are closed; we are using computers to instruct. Sounds nice, except that in many school districts, relatively few have computers at home. We had a considerable disparity of quality of education, even before all this happened. This is, at best, a fig leaf which will widen the gaps between rich and poor. Are we creating a new underclass? It will buy us much trouble going forward.

Yes, we have to open up economies ASAP. We cannot do so, we are told, until widespread testing is available, and we have contact tracing in effect. For some reason, we can’t seem to get our act together to perform either function . Other countries, notably South Korea, have tested a much greater proportion of their populace, much earlier. Why can’t we? At this writing, we do not appear to have funding to hire people (around 100-200 thousand) to conduct contact tracing.

Yes, we need a vaccine. Depending on who you ask, the most rapidly we can expect such salvation is sometime in the next year. I have been struck recently by seeing interviews on CNN of the leader of the effort to develop one. A do-nothing civil servant who happens to be a woman of color. Maybe a helpful sign that we are through wasting such talent through stupid racist prejudice. One can hope.

Dihydrogen Monoxide: A Strange Substance

Dihydrogen momoxide (aka Water) is an extremely common substance we all know about – or do we? Some odd properties of water:

  • It has a much higher heat capacity than most substances. Heat capacity is the quantity of heat which must be applied to raise the temperature of a given amount of substance by, say, one degree Celsius (or Fahrenheit). For example, it takes about one calorie of heat to raise the temperature of one gram of water from 25 degrees Celsius to 26 degrees, By contrast, only about 0.2 calorie would be needed to raise a gram of aluminum by 1 degree C, and even less to do the same thing to a gram of iron. The heat capacity of air is, also, much lower than water. This is why we see highway signs telling us water on bridge surfaces freezes well before it does on road surfaces having soil under them (heat capacity of soil is greater than air). This property of water also explains why, after sundown, air temperature drops much lower in dry air, than in humid air. Obviously, this has a profound effect on climate. Think of heat capacity as the ability to retain heat. The higher moisture (water) content of humid air “holds” the heater better than dryer air.
  • Water is the only common substance whose liquid state is more dense than its solid state (ice). Ever wondered why ice floats? Density is a comparison of how much a substance weighs to the amount of room it occupies. Mathematically (don’t be alarmed, it’s simple) it’s defined as the ratio of mass to volume. One gram of liquid water occupies one milliliter (or cubic centimeter) of space. It’s density, therefore, is 1.0 gram per milliter. By contrast, a gram of ice takes up about 1.1 milliliter. Density of ice is 1.0 gram divided by 1.1 milliliter, or about 0.9 gram per milliliter. Densities less than 1.0 gram per milliliter float; densities greater than 1.0 gram per milliter sink. Because of this counterintuitive property of water, ice in lakes, ponds, or for that matter, oceans, will freeze, leaving a lower level of water beneath, whose temperature will not go below freezing, enabling marine life to survive winter.
  • Ever wonder why a steam burn is more painful than one from hot water? We probably learned the “formula” for water in grade school. H2O, right? Well, that’s something of an oversimplification. If water is simply two atoms of hydrogen bonded to an oxygen atom, the substance would be a gas at room temperature. Water is actually a loosely bonded bunch of individual H2O’s; the attractive forces holding the bunch together are called hydrogen bonds. The strength of a H-bond is only a fraction of the strength of the bonds within the molecule. When liquid water is heated to its boiling point (100 C;212 F). additional energy is needed to break the hydrogen bonds. This energy does not even register on a thermometer, but it’s there, all right. The steam has more energy to burn you as a result.
  • Once water is boiling, you can’t raise its temperature above the boiling point, no matter how much heat you (or the stove) applies. Boiling points can only be raised by increasing barometric pressure. If one constructs a pot with a tight lid, the steam has no place to go, the pressure in the pot goes up and the boiling point will increase. In a kitchen, this pot is a pressure cooker. The hotter boiling water cooks stuff much faster as a result.

Hope this makes some sense. Ain’t science wonderful!

Fentanyl – A Primer

Fentanyl is an extremely potent drug, whose legitimate uses include pain relief for cancer patients. It is one of the most potent drugs in the pharmacopeia. A usual dose of 100 micrograms or less does the trick; it would take about 10 milligrams of morphine to achieve the same result. For those who are metric challenged, a milligram is equal to 1,000 micrograms. If you do the math, fentanyl is about 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Fentanyl was first synthesized in 1960, and made its way into legitimate medicine a few years later. It is listed in Schedule 2 of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), owing to its extreme potency, making it highly prone to abuse. During my career with DEA, I never encountered the stuff until I had been “off the bench” for several years.

The CSA, along with state drug laws, has been on the books since 1970. Most of the listed drugs were “grandfathered” into it from earlier statutes. Obviously, there needs to be a mechanism for adding new substances. To do so, one needs to elucidate the correct chemical structure (not always easy), demonstrate that it has been “abused”, and then, DEA (part of the Department of Justice) can propose it for addition to the Act. The law, however, requires concurrence of the Department of Health and Human Services. Once this has been achieved, the drug can be added to the list. This can easily take months.

Unfortunately, fentanyl is relatively easy to make. Moreover, fentanyl “analogues” are also easily synthesized. As a consequence, there are numerous clandestine “laboratories” making these substances. The Internet describes several “one pot” procedures. There are at least a dozen or so of these analogues out there in the traffic. They are closely related structurally to fentanyl, and have the same effects. Only fentanyl, itself, was illegal. If someone was busted for trafficking in an analogue which was not on the list, no prosecution was possible under the CSA. What is a narc to do? Even back in the day, in my early career in the 1960’s, there were clever chemists who made analogues which were not listed (as the saying went they were staying “one carbon atom” ahead of the feds).

By now, you might be wondering what an “analogue” is. If a molecule such as fentanyl is represented by a Christmas tree, each ornament might be likened to an organic functional group. For example, a methyl functional group consists of a single carbon atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms. If the fentanyl tree is decorated with a methyl group, an analogue is formed. This is a different organic compound from fentanyl. Its effect on the human body may be the same as fentanyl, be totally different, or, in many instances, much more potent. The position where the group is bonded to the fentanyl molecule is indicated by a number, or a greek letter. Thus, an additional methyl group may be 3-methyl fentanyl or alpha-methyl fentanyl, each of which are compounds distinct from fentanyl itself.

This issue came to a head in the late 1970’s when a new, more powerful “synthetic heroin” appeared on the West Coast, sold as “China White”. The stuff, however, caused some fatalities, always bad for business. Some of the material was submitted to the DEA Special Testing and Research lab. At first, the sample was found to contain nothing but lactose, a harmless cutting agent. When the chemists concentrated the mixture, however, they were able to detect miniscule amounts of a new (to us, anyway) substance which appeared to be similar to fentanyl. It was later found to be alpha-methyl fentanyl. (“Later” took several weeks during which many more might have overdosed).

Clearly, a speeded-up process to add stuff like this to the CSA had to be devised. Congress did pass a law, the Controlled Substances Analogue Act, in 1986. This pretty much said that if a substance was “chemically similar” to a controlled drug (if it looked like a duck…) it was illegal. This helped somewhat, but with the plethora of illegal substances flooding the market during the 2010’s, it was not adequate. In 2018, Congress passed legislation to permit DOJ to list substances by class, rather than specific name. Fentanyl analogues could be regarded as a “class” of drugs, and included in the CSA. Unfortunately, the legislation was to specified expire in two years. Congress has passed legislation to extend this provision when the current law expires on February 8th of 2020. Stay tuned…….

Happy Endings

Ever wonder where the happy endings to our children’s nursery stories, to Hollywood pictures and other types of prose, have gone? Well, many of the nursery stuff (particularly ones from our English culture) were somewhat gory, when you think about it (think of the unfortunate Humpty Dumpty, Jack with Jill on the hill and others). Happy endings still do exist, if only on our TV drug commercials.

These art forms feature adults, for the most part, suffering from health issues. They take the medication, and, presto! They seem miraculously cured, or symptoms are magically alleviated. They all get better!

Back in the day, we went to the doctor, who would prescribe something. Under this model, we become more proactive (“ask your doctor if ____________________ is right for you”). How could it be wrong? Just watch the commercial. We do need to pose some questions, however guided by the voiceover:

-Have you been to places where certain fungal infections are common…..What? What are these? Where are these?

-Am I allergic to ______ or any of its ingredients? How would I know? What about some of the excipients used to make the tablets? Am I allergic to lactose, corn starch, D&C Red#1 used to color the tablets?

Then we have all the possible things which could go wrong (may lead to death….). Maybe some of these things have really happened, which begs the question why any sane person would take this stuff, anyway

The voiceover, is, of course, primarily intended to cover the drugmaker’s posterior. It is probably written by lawyers and, I guess, a necessary evil, but it casts a shadow over the spirit of good news (Well, we can’t have everything). Fortunately it is delivered quite rapidly, and there s no quiz afterwards. We are redirected to the optimistic wrapup (“going for my best. For Eliquis!”).

And so it goes. The good news is not completely free, of course. These commercials cost about 4.5 billion dollars annually, industrywide, which could be used for, maybe, R&D, or lowering the cost for these expensive meds. Maybe this is “why we science”!

The Seaman’s Exam

Fresh out of 90-day wonder school, I reported to my first duty station, line officer, USS Aeolus (ARC-3). (I always will remember when they passed out these assignments. My company chief told me where I was going, then took a beat “Mr. Canaff, what the hell is an ARC?”) The ship, converted from a Navy cargo ship, layed SOSUS cable to track Soviet nuclear submarines on the North Atlantic. Among the modifications was the complete removal of all gunnery from the ship, to allow for specialized cable laying gear (this becomes important later). I was made the Deck Division officer (Ship’s Bosun), with approximately 40 enlisted men under my command (who knew a lot more about what the ship did for a living than I did).

I was lucky to have excellent senior enlisted people, including a Chief Boatswain’s Mate and a First Class of the same specialty. Evidentally the Navy made sure to staff these ships with the best deck rigging types possible to perform the ship’s mission, oriented as it was toward complicated tasks involved in laying cable.

The remainder of my charges consisted of young seamen with limited experience. These men were almost all “seaman apprentice”, Pay Level E-2. Few, if any, had been promoted to E-3, “seaman”. In my limited experience, E-1’s (Seaman Recruit) were promoted to Seamen Apprentices upon completion of naval boot camp, then sent to their first duty stations. Within a year or so, they usually were promoted to Seaman, E-3. By contrast, my people seemed mired as E-2’s, even 2-3 years later. Why? They all seemed competent enough. What was holding them back? In 1963, when all this took place, monthly E-1 pay was $78 monthly, E-2’s drew $85, and E-3’s about $95.

It seems the problem was the sailors’ inability to pass a Navy-Wide written exam. Many of the exam questions concerned gunnery topics, which were all but impossible to train people about on a ship with no guns! I did do some bureautic research, and found that the “Navy-Wide” exam was merely a suggestion, not a requirement.

Each command could make up its own test, based on the ship’s mission. Ship’s command just assumed the test was a requirement, and nobody had bothered to challenge it.

After I had convinced them, I got with my senior enlisted folks and had them modify the exam to pretty much eliminate the gunnery questions, and substitute stuff most pertinent to laying cable. The test was taken shortly afterward, and most every SA passed and got promoted to Seaman. About $10 more in the monthly pay envelope.

No big deal, but even I, not having an MBA or any experience in management, had learned that a vital function of a supervisor is to look after your people. They will then, in the current idiom, in some manner, have your back.

Caveat Emptor (what you see is (often not) what you get…….)

We seem to be hearing a lot of Latin these days (quid pro quo and all that). In a past career with DEA, I was editor, for a time, of a newsletter and journal we called Microgram. We received a never ceasing flow of mail concerning bait-and-switch in the drug trade (caveat emptor, buyer beware). Here are a couple of examples.

During the 1980’s, we began to see drugs which mimicked common ones such as heroin. Many of these were not listed as controlled (illegal) under federal or state law. They became known, collectively, as “designer drugs”, mostly synthesized by “chemists” working in clandestine labs (think of meth labs nowadays). These people ranged in qualifications from college professors to barely literate folks who followed a recipe. One such drug went by “MPPP” (1-methyl-4-phenyl-4-propionoxypiperidine if you’re into formulas). This substance was first synthesized in the 1940’s as a potential competitor of meperidine, aka demerol, but was never approved by FDA. It is listed as a Schedule 1 drug, with effects similar to heroin.

Unfortunately, the manufacture method used by the bad guys produced an impurity, which was nicknamed “MPTP” (1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine). Since clandestine labs are not into quality control, the mixture was put out on the street, and, as it happened, MPTP caused Parkinson-like symptoms in numerous users. Unfortunately, the symptoms were not reversable.

During that same decade, we encountered several analogs of fentanyl, a legally produced narcotic. This stuff is, dosewise, about 100 times more potent than morphine or heroin. Some of these analogs were estimated to be five times more potent than fentanyl. Numerous overdose fatalities resulted, since the substances were handled by distributors in much the same manner as the cutting of heroin. Who knew??? Fentanyl, itself, is now mass-produced or trans-shipped through Mexico. It poses a significant threat to police or other first responders who have to handle it.

Only two of caveat emptor situations out of countless others. Buyer beware!

Marijuana Species……..What’s in a name?

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 defines marijuana, in part, as “All parts of the plant Cannabis Sativa L…….”. Many of us learned that biological classification of living things follow a sequence in order of specificity:

Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, Variety

Skipping over the obvious. Marijuana is a plant, not an animal. It essentially falls into the genus Cannabis, Species Sativa. The capital letter “L” probably stands for Linneaus, the botanist who published the classification a long time ago. Sometime early in the last century, the definition became part of the Marijuana Tax Act, and was lifted word for word into the 1970 statute, the one used today.

Like most plants, there are numerous agronomic varieties in existence, some of which enter the legal lexicon without too much attention to detail, an example being Cannabis Indica, having something to do with regulation of hemp, a variety of the Cannabis plant having considerable tensile strength (good for making rope), but not good for getting high. This ambiguity led in the 1980’s toward some legal mischief.

I was working at DEA headquarters at the time. A major case (probably involving tons of pot) was argued in federal court for the Eastern District of New York, before Judge John R. Bartels, Sr. The defense had hired Professor Richard E. Shultes as an expert witness. Shultes was a Harvard professor (Ever wondered about the plethora of

o Harvard professors

o Kentucky colonels

o New York Times best-selling authors

out there? I have. But I digress).

Anyway, Shultes advanced an opinion that the law proscribes C. Sativa, but not species such as C indica or C. ruderalis. Further, the correct species can only be determined on intact plants (which never happens in a forensic setting).

Shultes did not advance any theories about any of the other “species” not containing psychoactive substances.

To better understand the far-reaching implications of this interpretation, here is a short description of forensic identification of marijuana plant material. After measurement of exhibit weight, a few simple chemical tests are run, to confirm the presence of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which gets one high. The stuff is then examined under a low powered microscope to examine morphology of the plant material. The examiner typically looks for cystolithic hairs and other such features, and based on their appearance, identifies the stuff as marijuana. All of this can be done within an hour or less by an experienced analyst.

Shultes’ take was challenged by an expert retained by the prosecution, one Dr. Ernest Small, who, basically, stated that the taxonomic world agreed with the current classification of the marijuana plant. What was Judge Bartels to do?

The judge retained the services of Dr. Arthur Cronquist of the New York Botannical Gardens, who agreed with Dr. Small. Case closed.

Although probably coincidental, Judge John R. Bartels, Sr. was the father of John R. Bartels, Jr., the first Administrator of DEA. Bartels was no longer in that post when these events unfolded.

Chicken of the Sea

Shortly before reporting for duty on my first ship in 1963, she was involved in a collision in San Francisco Bay. According to my shipmates, the captain (a well politically connected naval reserve commander) was heard to say to the exec as collision was imminent,”Well, John, there goes my fourth stripe”. As the Navy cliché goes, a collision can ruin your day. To make matters worse, the captain had just taken command, and this was his first voyage, from Adak, Alaska to San Franscisco.

I reported to the USS Aeolus (ARC-3) as a boot ensign, fresh from 90-day wonder school (Naval OCS) in March 1963. In a few months time, I qualified as OOD.

As an Officer of the Deck, one basically drives the ship on a watch, typically four hours. Obviously, the CO has to sleep (for example), or has other things to do. As OOD we were required to keep the captain informed of any threats to the ship’s well being, threats such as another ship which might collide with us on the open ocean, or worsening weather. On this particular night, my standing orders were to notify (awaken) the skipper if another ship was projected to pass within three miles or so, or the barometer had fallen by a certain amount. Both of these circumstances occurred. I called down the voice tube to his stateroom to report them.

Shortly aferward, the captain appeared on the bridge. I briefed him on the other ship in the vicinity; he appeared not to be listening. The better part of a minute went by with silence. Then, he said to me in a shaky voice, “Mr. Canaff. Right full rudder”. I barked the order to the helmsman, and the ship began to turn. After what seemed a long time, he said, “Steady on 180” which was, basically, returning to port in Kittery, Maine. His short explanation? The drop in barometer portended a hurricaine!

The captain, who had spent most of his career in the (relatively calm) Pacific, was deathly afraid of the climate in the North Atlantic. To prepare himself, he had enrolled in a correspondence course on weather, and had learned that a sudden drop in air pressure often portended a tropical storm, nor’easter, or worse. He wanted no part of that!

After a couple of other instances of aborting missions because of (not so) foul weather, the type commander relieved him, and he was given command of a naval training center in the Midwest, safely far from salt water. Not before, however, the crew labelled him King Tuna, Chicken of the Sea.

War Story

One afternoon as I toiled as a forensic chemist in DEA’s Northeast Lab in New York, two agents came in, quite excited. They were getting a large amount of cocaine “just off the boat”, a big deal in the early 70’s. Could I hang around past quitting time so I could analyse some stuff they were getting on consignment? Sure.

A short time later, they arrived with a baggie of white powder. I ran some tests; yes, it was coke, all right, but had been “stepped on” (cut), and only assayed maybe 30% or so. They were not happy, to say the least. They asked me if I’d stay around, while they went back to the seller. Again, a short time went by, and they were back. This time, I told them the stuff wasn’t pure as the driven snow, but assayed about 75% . They said this was fine, and were about to go back and complete the purchase and subsequent bust. Thanks, Rog! I said wait a minute- what are you telling this creep? How are you testing purity? The reply: “We tell him we feed the stuff to the house junkie, and if he keels over, it’s good stuff”. You’ve got to be kidding me- would anyone fall for that? One of them, special Agent Howie Safir, told me, “you got to understand, Roger, that drug dealers are greedy and stupid”. Words to live by. I had only been with DEA a short time. What did I know?

By the way, in the fullness of time, Howard Safir went on to be a higher-up in the U.S. Marshalls Service, then became Police Commissioner in New York, during Rudy Guiliani’s term as mayor (I guess this was just before Tom Selleck got the job….). His partner, Ron Mockler, became a manager in the DEA New York office.