New ways to make illegal drugs

There aren’t many people who have a licence to create meth, ecstasy and other illicit substances. But that’s what Associate Professor Martin Johnston and his team are doing.

Illegal drug manufacturing is constantly changing. Criminals try to stay one step ahead of police by using different materials and creative chemistry. This chemistry is often ‘old chemistry’: old fashioned techniques from the 1950s that are used in new or unexpected ways. When the police are unable to determine why criminals are using certain materials or how, that’s when Martin’s team are called into action. They deliver answers for the police, but they also investigate further. They ask ‘How do you make it better?’ and ‘What are the by-products that you make?’ Just like no one makes apple pie exactly like Grandma did, each person makes drugs a little differently—and that’s also true across states.

Instead of just playing catch-up, Martin has started to ask ‘How would I do it?’ He’s working to figure out new ways to create illegal drugs that police cannot track, finding the loopholes before they can be exploited. It’s this work that has the most exciting potential for Martin, who has been sharing information across borders—starting with our own police, and extending to drug investigators in the US and Mexico.

It's interesting chemistry, but then there's the context as well. You wrap it up in the real-world of forensics and crime and then it's really interesting.