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Behind The Scenes To Spot Real Synthetic Drugs

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(credit: CBS) Liz Collin
At 15 years old, Liz Collin made her broadcast debut covering...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A law that was put into effect in Minnesota this summer was supposed to stop the sale of synthetic drugs. However, test results from the state’s largest lab show it’s not that simple.

In September, WCCO-TV went undercover and found how easy it is to buy the so-called incense and bath salts at one head shop in Minneapolis. Now, we’re seeing what it takes to spot the real stuff.

The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has run dozens of these tests for police departments across the state. Scientists only need a tiny amount to build a criminal case.

Synthetic drugs are colorful piles of plant material coated in drugs. Only a specialized test can determine whether or not.

Mark Patterson, a forensic scientist at the BCA, is one of 10 in the drug chemistry lab who look for the chemicals that make up synthetic drugs.

“In my opinion, I wouldn’t do them and I certainly wouldn’t recommend my kids do it,” Patterson said.

The test starts simply enough by weighing what they have. Then, just a few pieces are pulled out and mixed with chloroform. If there are drugs on the plant material, the liquid will pull it out.

A costly machine, which Patterson says it is similar to an oven, does the rest.

“It heats the sample up,” he said.

It takes just a few minutes to produce the results in the form of a graph. Like a fingerprint, the chemical make-up matches a drug that shouldn’t be sold.

The challenge now is keeping up with the sellers, who change the ingredients to try to get around the law.

“They’re always finding new ways to do things,” Patterson said.

As Patterson has seen, however, it doesn’t take long for science to catch up.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has banned five chemicals in synthetic pot and three chemicals in so-called bath salts. Patterson says if they test something with a similar chemical structure, it’s usually enough to fall under the law.

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