Student - 15 november 2012

Hair-splitting forensics

Doing his bit towards the eternal fight against crime, PhD student Wilco Duvivier of the Laboratory of Organic Chemistry is looking for hardened cannabis users who are willing to part with their head of hair.

What do you want to do with the hair of cannabis users?
'The aim of my research is to make it possible to get a detailed picture of someone's drug use through forensic research. It is a known fact that if you take cannabis or other drugs, traces of them can end up in your hair. Head hair grows by about a centimetre a month, so if you analyse a strand of it, you can see when the last time was that the person took drugs. At the moment, we cannot determine this with much accuracy.'
And your research will change that?
'That's the aim. In a court of law, hair is often dismissed as unreliable evidence, because the drugs may be on the hair, but not inside it. We want to make this evidence stronger by looking for the best method to wash impurities out of hair, and to be able to determine more accurately when cannabis was used. We are also going to find the best way to store hair samples: at room temperature or in the refrigerator, in light or in darkness.' 
Did you get many responses?
'Yes, more than expected - almost 10 responses already. We put up a poster calling for volunteers at a coffee shop, and sent mails to people in our department. And that is how the news got around, really. A couple of respondents backed out when they realized that they had to shave their heads completely, but fortunately others don't mind.'
Is it any use doing this with cannabis? Isn't there a stronger link between crime and hard drugs?
'It's true that cannabis is not the most dangerous or illegal drug. Certainly not in the Netherlands. The best way would be to feed someone a certain amount of cocaine or heroin at given times, but of course that is against the law. That's why we have chosen cannabis as a model system. It is likely that other drugs end up in hair via the same mechanism, so we will be able to comment on them as well.

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