Interview with Program Director Max Houck

What is your current job role and what does this position involve?

My current role is Visiting Assistant Professor and Director of the Forensic Studies & Justice Program at University of South Florida St. Petersburg. The Program teaches forensic investigative techniques and scientific applications in criminal cases, using structured analytic techniques borrowed from the intelligence community to mitigate and reduce bias, and how to improve the criminal justice system and avoid wrongful convictions. I created the Program, teach in it, and conduct research in these areas.

How did you come to work in the field of forensic science?

I became interested in forensic science through taking anthropology courses for my undergraduate minor; I was originally in International Relations and was going to be a translator (Russian and Japanese). Ultimately, bones made more sense than conjugating irregular Russian verbs and I changed majors. In my Masters work, I was a student of Jay Siegel, who set me on my path to a forensic science career.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career to date?

Being Director of the Washington, D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences. I structured the new agency, created many of its new policies for independent science, and worked with people who remain my heroes for what they do.

During your years working in forensic science, how do you feel the field has changed?

I worry that the field has become a bit of a cargo-cult science–we’ve “drunk our own Kool-aid”, as the saying goes. We believe if we SAY something is “scientific”, then it IS scientific. We’ve also come up with some fairly suspect ways of justifying bad or marginal science and these have been accepted by an all-too-willing court system. That is beginning to change, a little, with some good basic research into the fundamentals of our science but we’re still hampered by trying to be the servant of justice instead of a partner in the process.

In recent years, concerns over the reliability of some forensic techniques have been raised in the media. What steps do you think we need to be taking to ensure that only scientifically reliable techniques are utilised in legal investigations?

First and foremost, forensic agencies need to be independent of law enforcement; that won’t solve everything but it’s a good start to ensure we’re not marginalized. Second, we need to stop worrying about new methods and shore up the ones we’re already using–do they work and, if so, how well? Finally, we have to be better communicators about what we can and cannot say and why. Being pressured by money, time, or politics only gets you shoddy results–just look at any of the latest “forensic failures”.

Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for those pursuing a career in forensic science?

Be a scientist first; the application to criminal cases can come later. Don’t job hop; keep your first job at least two years and then move up or out. And last, don’t worry about ethics, worry about integrity. Ethics is knowing right from wrong and prisons are full of people who know the difference, they just lacked the integrity to make the right choice.

 

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Introducing the Controversial Psychoactive Substances Act

Introducing the Controversial Psychoactive Substances Act

As of this week the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect in the UK, a long-awaited and much-disputed piece of legislation that will attempt to transform the existing drug marketplace. The act will make it an offence to supply any substance that can produce a psychoactive effect (of course with the exception of the likes of alcohol and caffeine), aiming to specifically target new psychoactive substances (NPS) or ‘legal highs’, which have thus far evaded the Misuse of Drugs Act.

But just what are New Psychoactive Substances, and why has it been so difficult to enforce laws against their supply and use?

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NPS are synthetic chemical substances created to mimic the effects of existing illegal substances, such as cannabis or ecstasy. These drugs are often designed in such a way that they are sufficiently chemically similar to an illicit drug to cause the desired psychoactive effects, but adequately different to bypass the existing legislation.  The legislation currently controlling illicit substances in the UK is specific in the substances under regulation, meaning any slight changes to the chemical structure of an illicit drug can technically render the drug uncontrolled and legal to supply or use.

New psychoactive substances are typically sold as powders, pills or smoking mixtures (somewhat resembling cannabis). You may have heard these drugs referred to as “legal highs”, rather inaccurately indicating they are legal and even safe to use. But a brief internet search will pull up an array of news pieces highlighting unexpected illnesses and deaths brought on by the use of these drugs. The primary danger surrounding the use of new psychoactive substances is the lack of research involving these substances, exacerbated by the ever-changing and difficult-to-monitor composition of the drugs. In addition to this, as NPS are specifically sold as being unsuitable for human consumption, thus avoiding certain regulations, the user cannot be confident in exactly what they are buying. Although many legal highs do offer a list of ingredients on the packaging, the highly unregulated nature of this market casts doubt on the accuracy of such information. Forensic analysis of NPSs has shown that they may contain unexpected constituents and even quantities of illicit drugs.

The NPS market has boomed in recent years, with new drugs hitting the streets faster than scientists can even identify them. They have thus far been widely available online and in head shops (establishments openly selling paraphernalia for the use of cannabis and other drugs), typically advertised as bath salts or plant food. Unfortunately the ever-changing variety of ‘legal highs’ available has presented forensic scientists with a particular challenge. The analysis of more typical drugs is relatively straightforward, with the analyst armed with well-trialled presumptive tests, analytical methods and libraries for comparison. However as new psychoactive substances are developed with modified chemical structures, they may not react with presumptive tests and library matching may prove useless without a comparison.

The premise of the act has come under great scrutiny, with opponents asserting the Act will blindly ban harmless substances (not true) or that it will be utterly unenforceable (somewhat true). A similar piece of legislation has been instigated in the Republic of Ireland, but with little success, as highlighted by the extremely low number of successful prosecutions under the law. In fact, the implementation of this legislation in Ireland was actually followed by an increase in NPS use amongst teenagers from 16% to 22%. That is not to say the legislation was the cause of this increase, but it is an interesting point nonetheless.

Despite the criticism and uncertainty, the Psychoactive Substances Act will attempt to curb the supply of psychoactive substances and protect potential users of these drugs. Although it will not be an offense to possess new psychoactive substances for personal use, it will be a criminal act to supply such substances. It will be inconceivable to halt the online sale of psychoactive substances, but it will be possible to prevent head shops, of which there are hundreds around the UK, from blatantly advertising and selling these drugs. Although the Psychoactive Substances Act promises to be a difficult piece of legislation to enforce, if at the very least it prevents new psychoactive substances from being freely advertised as a normal and ‘safe’ alternative to drugs, a great improvement will be made. But only time will tell if this new piece of legislation will really reduce the use of these no longer legal highs.

 

References

Home Office.Trade in so-called ‘legal highs’ now illegal. [online] Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/trade-in-so-called-legal-highs-now-illegal

New Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 [online] Available: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2016/2/contents/enacted

Killer Cocktails: The Chemistry Behind the Lethal Injection

Killer Cocktails: The Chemistry Behind the Lethal Injection

In many countries worldwide, including the United States, lethal injection is used as a humane method of executing a death row inmate. With the lethal injection, the life of the inmate can theoretically be cleanly and swiftly ended through administering a number of drugs, with no pain and minimal trauma.

The debate over the lethal injection hit the news again last month when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against claims that the use of a drug used in lethal injections (midazolam hydrochloride) violates the Eighth Amendment (relating to prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment). Despite this method of capital punishment largely replacing supposedly less humane forms of death such as the electric chair and hanging, there is still great debate over the ethics of certain drugs used, and whether they actually do provide a swift and pain-free death.

But what drugs are involved in this lethal cocktail, and how do these end life in an apparently ethical manner?

The procedure for lethal injection can vary across different countries and even different states. In the United States, execution by lethal injection is typically achieved through the intravenous use of three drugs in succession, each with a different purpose, though in some instances a single-drug method is used, usually involving a lethal dose of anaesthetic.

Sodium Thiopental (Source: Chemspider)

Sodium Thiopental (Source: Chemspider)

But let’s look at the three-part cocktail. The first drug to be administered is usually a barbiturate to act as an anaesthetic (painkiller), used to ensure the remaining steps in the procedure do not cause any pain. Traditionally sodium thiopental is used, a fast-onset but short-acting barbiturate. Barbiturates are compounds which can ultimately produce anaesthetic effects. They act as agonists of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors, which are inhibitory neurotransmitters in the central nervous system. By binding to this receptor, the activity of the central nervous system is depressed, bringing about effects ranging from mild sedation to general anaesthesia. In this instance, a sufficient dosage is administered to render the inmate unconscious, thus ensuring a painless procedure. However some have argued that the fast-acting effects of sodium thiopental can wear off before the execution procedure is complete.

Succinylcholine Chloride (Source: Chemspider)

Succinylcholine Chloride (Source: Chemspider)

Once the inmate is unconscious, a neuromuscular-blocking drug is then administered, generally succinylcholine (also known as suxamethonium chloride) or pancuronium bromide. Compounds such as succinylcholine bind to acetylcholine receptors, blocking the action of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter essential in the proper functioning of skeletal muscle. When succinylcholine binds to this receptor, a cation channel in the receptor opens and depolarisation of the neuromuscular junction occurs. Normally when acetylcholine binds to this receptor, it soon dissociates following depolarisation and the muscle cell will be ready for the next signal. However compounds such as succinylcholine have a significantly longer duration, ultimately resulting in paralysis. In short, administering a drug such as succinylcholine prevents acetylcholine from communicating with the muscles and thus paralyses the inmate’s muscles, including those used to breathe. Other drugs such as pancuronium bromide can also be used, which have a different mechanism of action but ultimately achieve the same final result of muscle paralysis.

Finally the salt potassium chloride is administered. Within the body a variety of salts are vital for brain function, transmission of nerve signals and the beating of the heart, and these salt levels are tightly regulated by the body. In the normal functioning of the body, the majority of potassium is confined to the cells, with very little being present in the bloodstream at any one time. The introduction of a large amount of potassium chloride disrupts this electrochemical balance as the body’s cell are not able to equilibrate, rendering the cells unable to function, leading to cardiac arrest. In simpler terms, the overdose of potassium chloride brings about a condition known as hyperkalemia, in which the potassium concentration in the body is too high, causing the heart to fail. The inmate is officially declared dead when a cardiac monitor indicates the heart has stopped.

Recently, the drug used to initially render the inmate unconscious, sodium thiopental, has been difficult to obtain for a number of reasons, thus some states in the U.S. have used midazolam hydrochloride, a drug which has ultimately caused a great deal of controversy in recent years, such as in the Clayton Lockett case. This benzodiazepine is commonly used as a sedative, but when used during the lethal injection procedure, it is generally combined with an opiate. This is because midazolam itself has no analgesic (painkilling) effect, thus an additional drug is required to achieve this. Despite its recent use, claims have been made that a number of executions using this drug resulted in the prisoners showing signs of consciousness and gasping, suggesting that they were not quite as unconscious as intended. If the inmate is not unconscious when the muscle paralyser and electrolytes are administered, they may experience suffocation due to the muscle paralysing agent and burning caused by the potassium chloride.

So there we have it – some of the primary drugs administered during the lethal injection procedure and how they react within the body to bring about death. For more information on the death penalty (namely in the U.S), visit the Death Penalty Information Center.

References

Johnson, B. A. 2011. Addiction Medicine: Science and Practice Volume 1. New York: Springer.

Kroll, D. 2014. The Drugs Used in Execution by Lethal Injection. [online] Available from: http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidkroll/2014/05/01/the-pharmacology-and-toxicology-of-execution-by-lethal-injection

Kemsley, J. 2015. Sedative for Lethal Injections Affirmed. [online] Available from: http://cen.acs.org/articles/93/i27/Sedative-Lethal-Injections-Affirmed.html

Cover Image Credit: Thomas Boyd (The Oregonian)