Doing my job

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September 19, 2005 // UPDATED 1:58 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

Brenda Maldonado

Public Health Chemist

Minneapolis Public Health Labratory

250 S. 4th St.

Brenda Maldonado knows her drugs. She can tell black tar heroin from "red rock opium" (not real opium or even a controlled substance,) real magic mushrooms from fake, and Ecstasy from caffeine pills, or, in one case, a Caribou Coffee mint.

For the past 20 years, the city of Minneapolis has offered free testing for identification -- and in some cases, purity -- of suspected street drugs. It's not a large part of Maldonado's and fellow chemist Becky Willis' job -- the laboratory also does water and soil analysis, testing for lead in homes and children's blood, Sexually Transmitted Disease evaluations for Minneapolis school-based clinics, and helps Hennepin County assess incoming immigrants' health.

The street drug program amounts to only 10-20 samples a year, often from "parents who find weird stuff in their kids' bedrooms," Maldonado said. About a quarter of them are actually drugs. One substance found in a son's room turned out to be .04 grams of wax. Another sample of suspected cocaine turned out to be just that. Sometimes, the chemists get "the whole life story" -- such as the honors student who is suspected of doing coke. (He was.) Willis got a positive sample of methamphetamine recently.

"Now I have to break the news to this poor mom," she said.

Samples can be mailed (call first) or dropped off. A program flyer states that it is not against the law to bring suspected drugs to the program. (Again, call first.) The service is free, and results are given within a week. Although the program is open to "almost anyone in the community," Willis said the program has ways to weed out drug dealers or buyers, who in the past would sometimes send samples to be tested for quality. And, of course, you don't get your drugs back. All samples are destroyed.

There are two levels of testing. The first is a simple screening, which will turn the tiniest amount of substance, dipped in a solution, a different color if positive -- purple, orange or blue depending on the drug. This is often enough to answer a query.

The second, more comprehensive test -- involving machines called the gas chromatograph and mass spectrophotometer -- identifies substances according to chemical properties such as retention time and molecular weight. A readout shows a graph with peaks and valleys, particular to each drug, which by now Maldonado knows by sight.

Maldonado said that many who receive bad news -- a positive sample from their child's room, for instance -- are not surprised and suspected the results, based on behavior or other factors. For some, the next question is where to get help.

Anyone interested in using the Street Drug Analysis Program may call 673-2160.