The Malta Independent 23 June 2024, Sunday
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‘Cannabis users may not know they are smoking a synthetic drug, which can kill instantly’

Rebekah Cilia Tuesday, 16 April 2019, 09:58 Last update: about 6 years ago

Rebekah Cilia speaks with court expert on drug analysis, Godwin Sammut, about the recent record-breaking amount of drugs seized in Malta, and the alarming increase of new synthetic drugs. Sammut also lectures criminology students and mental health nurses at the University of Malta.

What does your job as a court expert in drug analysis entail?

When a magisterial inquiry is launched, concerning drug seizures, I am called as a court expert to identify and analyse the drugs. We then write a report and present it to the court. The drug samples used are also presented to the courts as exhibits.


Referring to the recent drug hauls, what type of drugs are being found and what is their potency?


In the large drug hauls, the ones coming by containers, the most prevalent drug being discovered is cocaine. The cocaine is hailing directly from South America, so obviously, this tends to be pure, which is to be expected. When we say pure, we mean it is about 80 to 90 per cent purity.

On the streets, the purity is only 18 to 35 per cent. In importation of smaller amounts, for example in luggage, the purity is about 50 per cent.

When it comes from South America, it probably comes straight from the source, since cocaine is produced there. Most of the large drug hauls were not directed to Malta, they were in transit to other countries.


What happens to the drugs once they are seized?

First, the analysis is performed and presented to the court. If a container with drugs is caught, where no one is directly involved, the police ask for all the drugs to be destroyed. The drugs are completely destroyed by incineration.

In smaller quantities, when there is, for example, a drug mule and a case is open, the drugs need to be kept until the case is closed. The drugs are stored in a strong room in court. When the case is closed these drugs are also incinerated.


How many samples are taken from the overall haul for analysis?

When it is a large haul, like from a container, certain sampling regulations are followed, which are standard regulation procedures on the number of samples required for analysis. The number of samples, however, depends on the actual content of the container. If the container has similar packages, smaller samples are taken, but if the packaging is different larger samples need to be taken.

Most packages of drugs have a logo on them, probably used by the source as a means of identification of the drug. When the logo is different, each batch needs to be sampled.


How are drugs caught, by x-rays or smell?

Containers are scanned by specialised scanners at the Freeport, whilst at the airport, there are also sniffer dogs.

Each drug has a particular smell, in fact when we open the packet containing the drug we are able to identify straight away what type of drug it is. The drugs are packaged in such a way to try and mask the smell, and also, in containers, they are packaged to avoid detection by the scanners.

Caffeine is often used to try and hide the smell, but the dogs are very good at detecting the smells.


Due to a large amount of drugs being seized, has the market in Europe been affected?

According to the information we have about prices on the market, which is gathered by the police and other such entities, the price of the drugs has remained approximately the same. There was no indication that the number of drugs caught was enough to affect the market.

Whilst I cannot say if the amount caught is only a small proportion of the amount that is actually imported, I presume that there are importations that go undetected. There is a big problem with synthetic drugs at the moment, however, as they are simply sent by post.


What are synthetic drugs?

There are traditional drugs like heroin, cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy and then there are synthetic drugs and the new synthetic drugs. The basic elements of the traditional drugs are not synthetic, for example, cocaine comes from the coca bush, heroin comes from opium poppy. Traditional drugs may be then synthesised in a laboratory but synthetic drugs are made in the laboratory.


Are these new synthetic drugs more dangerous?

Yes, the new synthetic drugs are more dangerous since they are stronger. The synthetic replacement of cannabis, cannabinoids, look exactly like the traditional drug but much stronger, which is why it is so worrying. It is made from a mixture of normal herbs, like mint, and sprayed with a chemical substance which turns it into the drug. We have had cases of joints which have had this type of new synthetic replacement in it.

Users may not even know it is not cannabis. Whilst smoking a joint will not kill you directly, smoking a joint with a synthetic drug can. Sometimes even I would not know it is not cannabis until I do the analysis.


Are these synthetic drugs on the increase?

These drugs are being ordered from the internet and sent directly by post to your door. Most of them come from China, probably because of the lack of regulations there and the low costs.

Unfortunately, the amount of synthetic drugs is growing. They still have not reached the same quantities of traditional drugs, especially cocaine. The worry, however, is that they are being introduced slowly, and may entice younger people due to their low cost. Since these drugs are purchased off the internet there is no need for a dealer, everything is done by the person and this could be very attractive for youths. The increase is alarming.

Most get small amounts like one to five grams, so they are considered for personal use or maybe sharing, but not for trafficking.


What is the recent law on synthetic drugs?

The law on synthetic drugs is continually being updated since there are so many different synthetic drug compositions. The composition of the drug is continually being changed to avoid falling within the prohibition of the law. A general term cannot be used since making the definition too general could make medicinal products illegal, for example. On the packets of the synthetic drugs they write ‘not for human consumption.’


Are any of these synergic drugs made in Malta?

No, we have not found cases where synthetic drugs are made in Malta. We have had cases where cannabinoids are imported as just the leaves, which in itself is not illegal, and then they order the chemical separately. This is however controlled. The chemical powder is dissolved in alcohol and then the herbs are sprayed.

We have a lot of seizure of leaves which are not sprayed, but nothing can be done in that case as it is not illegal.

The danger with this drug is the ‘hotspots’ created by spraying the chemical unevenly on the leaves. These areas will be concentrated with the chemical, which can kill.


Crystal Meth is often heard in the American news and seen in films. What is it? And is it present in Malta?

Crystal meth is methamphetamine in crystal form. Methamphetamine is a stimulant like cocaine and it became popular because it is a cheaper version of cocaine. It is also easier to make than cocaine since it can be made with simple ingredients found at home. It is very dangerous to make as it can be explosive.

We never came across it in Malta, and it is not that popular in Europe. We do not eliminate it from our list, however, since it can easily appear, especially considering the increase in synthetic drugs.


Has fentanyl, the drug 50 times more potent than heroin been found in Malta yet?

Fentanyl is a very potent synthetic drug being mixed with heroin. Even the amount of a grain of salt of this drug could possibly cause death. So far we have not found this drug in Malta but we launched an informative leaflet about the drug to raise awareness, especially with first responders. Even by touching it, it could be fatal.

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