Chemical Profiling of Heroin Recovered from the North Korean Merchant Vessel Pong Su

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Heroin samples, seized from the North Korean merchant vessel Pong Su in Australian waters, were analyzed to determine geographic origin. Duplicate samples were analyzed by the National Measurement Institute's Australian Forensic Drug Laboratory and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration's Special Testing and Research Laboratory. Alkaloid ratios were determined by both liquid chromatography-diode array detection (LC-DAD) and capillary electrophoresis-diode array detection (CE-DAD) techniques. Acid/neutral manufacturing by-products were determined by solvent extraction followed by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). Solvents, trapped in the heroin particles during manufacture, were detected by both static headspace GC-MS and purge and trap GC-MS. The alkaloid ratios obtained were consistent with heroin of a Southeast Asian (SEA) origin and principal component analysis of the alkaloid results demonstrated the presence of at least four subgroupings within the seizure. The solvent analysis detected diethyl ether and ethyl acetate, solvents typically seen in SEA heroin. However, the acid/neutral analysis revealed compounds not normally seen in heroin of a SEA origin. Furthermore, sterol-like molecules, always detected in the acid/neutral analysis of SEA heroin, were absent from the Pong Su samples. The Pong Su heroin, although similar to SEA heroin, has sufficient differences to classify it as having an unknown origin at the time of this writing.

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