Patrick Tynan, a Forensic Analyst with the Seized Drugs Division of the Houston Forensic Science Center, works to identify pharmaceuticals, illicit drugs, plants or parts of plant, related chemicals, and drug paraphernalia. As a chemist, his job is to receive evidence, analyze it, test it for the presence of controlled substances, and testify in court if needed. Some of the substances include marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, prescription drugs, synthetic cannabinoids, and synthetic stimulants commonly called bath salts.
Patrick started with the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC) when it began in 2014. After the Houston Police Department’s Crime Lab went through a lot of challenges and controversies during the 2000’s decade, HFSC was created after the American Academy of Forensic Science recommended that the lab should be independent. HFSC works with law enforcement, the DA’s office, and may work with Harris County, as well as neighboring counties to identify drugs that are seized by law enforcement.
Unlike other sections in the HFSC, a typical case for Patrick can involve a number of different types of substances to identify.
“Some sections, like Toxicology, for example, receive very consistent casework with a blood tube or a urine sample, but in our section, we can get anything from Ziplocs of powder to bales of plant substances to smoking devices, smuggling wraps, all sorts of stuff comes through,” Patrick said. “I think most common is either a piece of plastic or a Ziploc containing some kind of powder or chunk substance, or crystalline substance, because meth is on the rise.”
Patrick said that currently, methamphetamine is the main drug to come through the lab.
“One trend I’m seeing a lot that might be a reason meth is in first place, is that whenever we get “party” or “rave” drugs, which are these small, multi-colored pills with fun logos on them, they’re usually marketed on the street as ecstasy or molly or MDA. Those more times than not, maybe like 9 times out of 10, will actually just be meth and caffeine. And I think a lot of the people who are on meth aren’t realizing that’s what they’re taking. And meth is in first place because that’s the significant number of cases we get for meth, would be the little multi-colored pills,” he said.
What has become more of an issue in the past few years, though, is fake pharmaceuticals.
“People used to prefer pharmaceuticals because you knew what you were getting and it was very consistent,” Patrick said.“ But we get a lot of fake pharmaceuticals in now and they are not very consistent, but they are very realistic looking. And we cannot tell them apart without testing.”
He continued, “For example, with hydrocodone, it could be something that they put in there that’s cheaper. Fentanyl and all the different fentanyls are the cheapest thing they can get because it’s so strong that they can only put in a tiny amount and that’s all they need for that one pill.”
“The problem is that when I get these cases, like some of them will be stronger than other tablets and some of them don’t even have anything inside. There’s no consistency, so you can take one and have no effect, and take the next one and be overdosing. We don’t do quantifications, so there’s no way of telling how strong each of these are. All I can tell is they’re not consistent and that people are having issues with these,” he said.
Fentanyl, Patrick said, has been skyrocketing in just the past couple of years.
“Back when I started, we would get maybe like, in 2015 we had 1 fentanyl case and, in 2017 we only had 24. It’s in only the last 2 years that it has been skyrocketing upwards.”
He said that he sees different kinds of fentanyl. He compared fentanyl to morphine to show its capacity for harm. Morphine comes from the opium plant, and it’s a very standard medicine, which is used by a lot of hospitals, Patrick said. He pointed out that heroin is 5 times stronger than morphine, and fentanyl is 100 times stronger than morphine, making it 20 times stronger than heroin.
“So fentanyl itself is pretty strong,” Patrick said. “Carfentanil is one of the fentanyl derivatives that we’ve seen multiple times and it’s 10,000 times stronger than morphine, so it makes fentanyl look weak.”
“(Its) only known use is for an elephant tranquilizer. They also used it to kill the T-Rexes in Jurassic World, but that doesn’t really count as much,” he said.
He also said that they see many derivatives of fentanyl coming through the lab.
“And there are other derivatives, acrylfentanyl is just as strong,” he said. “We’ve seen butyrfentanyl, furanylfentanyl, and alfentanil, all these different derivatives out there. They don’t know that they have much difference in effect, but they don’t really care when they put them out there.”
Ending on somewhat of an unexpected note, Patrick remembered the strangest case he had, which he still remembers vividly.
“I think the worst smelling case I ever had, which I thought would be one of the dead bodies from the DNA lab that smelled the worst, but the worst was a sock I got once from a homeless fellow, who wore this sock for multiple years straight and was storing his meth in it,” he said. “And when they seized him, they had to ‘chip’ the sock off of him, and submitted it and I smelled the worst smell of any of the cases I had ever had. I still remember that case,” Patrick said.