Cocaine smuggling: NMR spots illicit cocaine in wine

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  • Published: Oct 14, 2010
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: NMR Knowledge Base
thumbnail image: Cocaine smuggling: NMR spots illicit cocaine in wine

Testing without uncorking

Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy can be used to screen large cargos, such as cases of wine bottles, for the presence of illicit cocaine being smuggled in solution in the ethanol.

Dissolving cocaine in imported wine has been used as a smuggling technique and a number of cases have come to light in recent times. Now, researchers in Europe have demonstrated that NMR spectroscopy can be used to reveal the presence of dissolved cocaine. The technique could be used by customs officials to screen imported wine and to quickly identify bottles being used to smuggle cocaine without the need to open or disturb the container.

Cocaine, known chemically as benzoylmethylecgonine, or even more formally - methyl (1R,2R,3S,5S)-3- (benzoyloxy)-8-methyl-8-azabicyclo[3.2.1] octane-2-carboxylate - is a crystalline tropane alkaloid obtained from the leaves of the coca plant. Cocaine is one of the most common and insidious drugs of abuse and fetches a high price on the black market. Smugglers are forever trying to stay one step ahead of law enforcement and have developed various rather imaginative techniques for smuggling the drug across borders. One of the most recent approaches used to dissolve the drug in an otherwise respectable product such as wine or rum. Indeed, the latter approach led to the death of a UK man in 2009 when he unwittingly consumed rum from a deliberately contaminated bottle.

However, customs officers face an inordinate challenge in attempting to detect smuggled cocaine because cracking open bottles causes damage to expensive alcohol consignments as well as likely arousing suspicions among the smugglers and precluding the arrest of the putative recipient of the smuggled goods.

Customs' MRI scanner

Giulio Gambarota of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, and colleague Chiara Perazzolo together with Antoine Leimgruber, Reto Meuli, Silke Grabherr of the Service of Radiodiagnostic and Interventional Radiology, at the University Hospital of Lausanne, and Patrice Mangin and Marc Augsburger of the University Center of Legal Medicine Lausanne - Geneva, University Hospital of Lausanne, Switzerland, used proton NMR carried out with a standard MRI scanner to test unopened wine bottles. Experiments were carried out using a 3 Tesla clinical scanner on wine phantoms with or without cocaine contamination. The aromatic protons of the cocaine molecule displayed resonance peaks in the 7 to 8 ppm region of the spectrum, the team explains, in this region there are no overlapping resonances due to normal compounds found in wine. They could also see additional cocaine resonances in the 2 to 3 ppm region of the spectrum sitting between the resonances of ethanol and other wine constituents. Moreover, the method allowed them to detection cocaine in wine at a concentration of as low as 5 millimolar, which is equivalent to approximately 1.5 grams per litre of liquid within a sixty-second scan time. That concentration is well below what one would imagine to be useful for smuggling marketable quantities of the illicit drug.

"By fostering collaboration between police or customs officials and a local medical department, this technique can be used to evaluate large numbers of bottles in a short time, giving information not only that there is another substance in the alcohol as with current scanning techniques, but exactly what that substance is," explains Gambarota.

Testing times for liquids

"This method could also be used in other sorts of smuggling where drugs are dissolved in liquids, so there are many opportunities for further uses," the team says. "Generally speaking, I can say that since every molecule has a very specific fingerprint in an MR spectrum, MRS has a high specificity in identyfying substances, including illicit drugs," Gambarota told SpectroscopyNOW. He points out that at least in the near future, customs are likely to use scanners in hospitals to check for contaminated cargo. "A number of portable MR machines are also being developed, and probably we will first see these new machines at customs to test specific packages such as liquids, for instance?" he adds.

Gambarota is currently at the GSK, Clinical Imaging Centre, at Imperial College London, Hammersmith Hospital. The research was supported by the Centre d'Imagerie Biomédicale (CIBM) of the UNIL, UNIGE, HUG, CHUV, EPFL, and the Leenaards Jeantet Foundation.

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy can be used to screen large cargos, such as cases of wine bottles, for the presence of illicit cocaine being smuggled in solution in the ethanol.

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