Exclusive: This unit is hooked on tackling drugs

CAPE ARGUS

ROOTED OUT: Mandrax and tik to the value of R3m at the Forensic Science Laboratory in Plattekloof which deals with a variety of forensic disciplines and evidence for crime and court cases. Picture: Tracey Adams

In Part 4 of a five-part series, Lance Witten looks at the chemistry unit at the Western Cape SAPS Forensic Science Laboratory.

 Drugs are pervasive to life in Cape Town and the fight against the scourge is being championed not only by the men in blue, but the staff of the Police Forensics Laboratory in Plattekloof.

The facility services most of the country, but it is in the drug lab that some of the most urgent work is conducted.

Colonel Jaco Westraat runs the chemistry unit at the facility and deals with hundreds of kilograms of drugs coming through his labs.

The labs are state-of-the-art. The evidence is delivered directly to the lab technicians via a complex rail cart system which is biometrically controlled to ensure there is a traceable chain of custody.

At no point, from the time the evidence enters the premises in Plattekloof to the time it is handed over for destruction, does the opportunity to tamper with it present itself.

On the day the Cape Argus visited the facility, there was more than R10 million worth of tik and mandrax in the unit’s boardroom, packed neatly in signed evidence bags.

“There’s only two reasons people do drugs,” Westraat says. “It’s nice – it gives you a good feeling. Anything that affects your central nervous system and makes you feel good I consider drugs. And there’s money in it. For example, in this bag” – he picks up a 10kg bag of tik – “you have enough tik for 10 000 straws of a gram each. And each gram is selling for R30. You do the maths.”

He says the mark-ups on the products is what gets people into the drug trade.

“You buy some for R1 000. You sell the batch for R10 000. But the people who made it maybe used R100 worth of raw materials. And it’s carcinogenic. You don’t see it now, when you’re using, but three, four, 10 years down the line, you’ve got liver cancer, or throat cancer, or some other kind of cancer. Not to mention, two years from now, you lose your teeth, but you still use it. Why? Because it makes you feel lekker and there’s money in it.”

When police officers find a peculiar substance in your possession, they can arrest you on suspicion of possession, but they can’t charge you until it’s proven that the substance you have is illegal. That’s where Westraat and his team come in.

They use a plethora of equipment to identify substances, but among the most important are the Ultra-high Pressure Liquid Chromatograph Tandem Mass Spectrometer (UPLC MS/MS) and the Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer.

The UPLC MS/MS costs about R4m and the Gas Spectrometer is worth about R1.3m. There are multiple units which run analyses independently, 24/7.

Samples are placed into liquid suspensions and then run through the machine.

The drugs are picked up when the solution travels through a 10m coiled tube inside the spectrometers, being bombarded with electrons to isolate the compounds, to identify the chemical compounds which create “drug fingerprints”.

“I can see by just looking at this reading that this is cocaine,” Westraat says.

A few clicks of the mouse proves he knows his signatures.

The signatures present as peaks and troughs on a graph.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s 1 percent pure or 100 percent pure, the signature doesn’t lie.”

And the machines don’t lie either.

Each one is serviced annually, and calibration is done every 72 hours.

“It’s like if you switch on your posh German vehicle. You insert the key and all lights are green. Fine, you can start up and go. But it will tell you if something isn’t right. The minute we fire these machines up in the morning, if something is wr…

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