Technology provides the greatest ally in speed and accuracy for substance analyzers
In the war on illicit drug trafficking today,
a law enforcement professional’s
greatest allies are speed and accuracy.
Lack of speed may have the consequence
of delayed justice and inaccurate
substance analysis may result in a wrongful
conviction of the innocent or letting a
drug trafficker go free.
Advanced technology in hand-held,
portable drug analyzer devices provides
both speed and accuracy to a greater degree
than ever before, and this is critical
because illicit trafficking in ever-moredangerous
drugs such as fentanyl is increasing
Speedy and accurate results of substance
analysis at the point of interdiction are critical,
not only for preventing false alarms and
wrongful arrests that send innocent people
to jail, but also, conversely, for confirming
suspicions and convicting bad actors; but
there is a lot more to it than that.
Nothing can take the place of wise discretion
and intuitive thinking on the part
of law enforcement professionals, but reliable
technology can help make their job
easier by providing confirmation and results
that can be trusted unquestionably.
THE NEED FOR SPEED
There are many reasons why speedy results
on the street are critical. Fast and accurate
results will save lives. If a person at a crash
scene is going into convulsions and having
trouble breathing, and there is evidence of
a powder spilled in the vehicle, a 10-second
result identifying the substance as fentanyl
could save that person’s life with the administration
of a dose of NARCAN antidote.
It could also prevent the officer from
making contact with the dangerous synthetic
opioid. Speedy results could mean sending
a drug trafficker to jail and take volumes of
drugs off the street then and there without
having to wait for results from a lab, a lab
that may be hopelessly backlogged for weeks
and even months with substance testing.
Lab backlogs are a serious problem today,
allowing the guilty to avoid justice, and
worse, allowing innocent people to be wrongfully
detained while they wait to be cleared.
Delays and backlogs, the result of inadequate
and inaccurate testing technology and the explosion in illegal drug use, hurt the innocent
as often as they don’t identify the guilty.
COLORIMETRIC FIELD TESTING
But what did we do before the days of
better analyzer technology? Law enforcement
most frequently used common wetchemistry
test kits to identify narcotics in
the field. Relatively easy to use, these kits
call for a series of dilutions, where offi-
cers must interpret color changes in order
to correctly identify a substance. This is
known as Colorimetric Analysis.
Colorimetric analysis is a method of
determining the concentration of a chemical
element or chemical compound in a solution
with the aid of a color reagent. But
colorimetric testing is not very specific; it
is only effective for a very narrow range
of certain known drugs and not for other
chemicals or substances such as newer
synthetic drug compounds.
More importantly, test results from the
colorimetric method do not always support
probable cause in charging a drug suspect.
Instead, all suspect samples collected from
alleged offenders often must be transported
considerable distances to a properlyequipped
laboratory facility. Colorimetric
test kits can often identify ‘classes’ of compounds
rather than specific substances, so
it is an imperfect field analysis method.
Widespread evidence shows that these
field test kits, which cost about $2 each
and have changed little since 1973, routinely
produce false positives and are unreliable.
1 The field tests seem simple, but a
lot can go wrong.
Some tests use a single tube of a chemical
called cobalt thiocyanate, which turns
blue when it is exposed to cocaine. But cobalt
thiocyanate also turns blue when it is exposed
to more than 80 other compounds, including
methadone, certain acne medications and
several common household cleaners.
FALSE POSITIVES LAND
INNOCENT PEOPLE IN JAIL
In a nationwide survey, it was discovered
that 9 out of 10 jurisdictions accept guilty
pleas based on field tests alone, and in a
1974 study, the National Bureau of Standards
warned that the kits “should not be
used as sole evidence for the identification
of a narcotic or drug of abuse.”
Even trained lab scientists struggle with what is called “confirmation bias,” or the tendency to take any new
evidence as confirmation of expectations. Labs rarely notify officers
when a false positive is found, so they have little experience to
prompt skepticism. But every year at least 100,000 people nationwide
plead guilty to drug-possession charges that rely on field-test
results as evidence. At that volume, even the most modest of error
rates could produce thousands of wrongful convictions.
OVERWHELMED LABS DROP THE BALL
Overwhelming backlogs have unfortunately caused the discredit
of many labs that have been overwhelmed by an ever-increasing
and insurmountable backlog of drug-test evidence. A federal survey
in 2013 found that about 62 percent of crime labs do not test
drug evidence when the defendant pleads guilty.2
Twenty-one percent of drug evidence submitted to Florida
law-enforcement labs as field-tested methamphetamine was not
meth. Half of these samples were not illegal drugs at all. Some
studies3 have shown error rates ranging from 1 in 5 false positives
to 1 in 3. But even those disturbing figures can get worse if one
creates an incentive for a police officer to want a positive result.
In 2009, the Marijuana Policy Project used the KN Reagent
field test on 42 substances that weren’t marijuana. They were able
to get false positives on 70 percent of them. The Miami Herald
reports that a Tampa Bay mother of four spent five months in jail
after a drug field test erroneously tested positive for oxycodone. It
took that long for her husband to accumulate the money to post
bail. It then took another seven months before the state crime lab
showed the field test to be in error.
SPECTROSCOPIC ANALYSIS CLOSES THE GAP
Hand-held portable narcotics analyzers that are highly accurate
and generate results almost instantly have become a new ally to
law enforcement. Thermo Scientific developed a hand-held portable
narcotics analyzer named the TruNarc Narcotics Analyzer.
Because it is so portable, about the size of a smartphone, it
can be brought into the field by law enforcement and used at the
scene of a traffic stop. What makes it different from traditional
drug identification methods is that it uses Raman spectroscopy –
essentially a laser light beam – to analyze substances, and it does
not need to be in direct contact with them; it can ‘see’ through
the packaging material generally if it is translucent. Raman Spectroscopy
is based upon the interaction of light with the chemical
bonds within a material.
Using Raman technology, the narcotics analyzer quickly identifies
a wide range of illegal drugs including narcotics, synthetic
drugs including methamphetamine, cutting agents and precursor
materials. Analysis is performed in a single test, in 30 seconds or
less per sample, and it is capable of identifying up to 324 prohibited
substances and can scan for up to 500 total substances in a
single, definitive test. It is currently in use throughout the United
States and in customs offices around the world.
Backlog Management: Freeing up Time for Labs
Sending samples of a suspected drug to a lab for analysis can
result in considerable delays, as discussed above. On-site, nearly
instant accurate identification of suspected drug substances is a
huge aid to labs suffering under the weight of crippling backlogs
in processing samples.
TruNarc and its sister analyzer Gemini have proven to be powerful
forensic backlog management tools, reducing backlogs and
freeing up more time for labs to process samples at higher rates
and volumes. Their high throughput capability makes them effective
for backlog reduction. This means fewer false positives or false
negatives, and quicker justice for both innocent and guilty parties.
The analyzers are complementary instruments. Gemini is in
fact the world’s first and only handheld integrated Raman and
FTIR instrument, capable of identifying more than 15,000 individual
substances, solids and liquids from narcotics to explosives
and chemical warfare agents to industrial chemicals and precursors
using a comprehensive onboard library that can be edited
and customized so that it is always up to date.
FTIR (Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy) is a technique
used to obtain an infrared spectrum of absorption or emission of a
solid, liquid or gas. An FTIR spectrometer simultaneously collects
high-spectral-resolution data over a wide spectral range.
When IR radiation is passed through a sample, some radiation
is absorbed by the sample and some passes through (is transmitted).
The resulting signal at the detector is a spectrum representing
a molecular ‘fingerprint’ of the sample.
The usefulness of infrared spectroscopy arises because different
chemical structures (molecules) produce different spectral fingerprints.
Use of FTIR technology yields very precise and accurate
results when identifying various substances. This is especially
useful when identifying fentanyl analogs, such as acetylfentanyl,
furanylfentanyl, and carfentanil, which are similar in chemical
structure to fentanyl but not routinely detected because specialized
toxicology testing is required.
Recent surveillance has also identified other emerging synthetic
opioids. Estimates of the potency of fentanyl analogs vary
from less potent than fentanyl to much more potent than fentanyl,
but there is some uncertainty because potency of illicitly manufactured
fentanyl analogs has not been evaluated in humans.
Carfentanil, the most potent fentanyl analog detected in the U.S.,
is estimated to be 10,000 times more potent than morphine.4
Advances in the technology of electronic substance analyzers,
aided by the science of Raman and FTIR spectroscopy, have made
drug analysis incredibly fast and accurate as well as capable of use in
the field for law enforcement professionals. Capabilities only imagined
a decade ago are now a reality with the capability of recognizing
hundreds of substances with real certainty at the point of discovery.
Using these powerful tools, law enforcement may someday stem
the tide of illicit drug trafficking and save uncounted lives.
This article originally appeared in the July / August 2020 issue of Security Today.