Precise Analysis

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 exponentially worldwide.

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.

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