According to the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 70,000 Americans died from drug overdose in 2017, the latest year for which such reporting is presently available. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, there were nearly 1.7 million arrests for drug law violations that same year.
The prevalence of illegal drugs such as marijuana (in many states), methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, opioid pills, and fentanyl necessitates that officers on patrol be able to identify the substances they find in the possession of subjects taken into custody.
Not 20 years ago, this was a much more arduous process than it is today. Now law enforcement officers are equipped with high-tech testing kits that can quickly and accurately identify controlled substances.
There are a number of companies that manufacture an array of presumptive drug test kits. Some products rely on reactive agents contained in breakable ampoules, some are designed to use infrared spectroscopy, some leverage laser technology, while others employ the use of chemical swabs.
The technology has evolved rapidly in recent years, and the latest solutions enable officers to accurately and safely identify illegal narcotics and provide prosecutors with solid evidence to be presented at trial.
The following is a look at how law enforcement officers use these tools in the field to identify illegal narcotics and arrest suspected drug dealers.
Officer Safety First
The danger associated with testing and identifying illicit drugs has been amplified by the alarming rise in the number of cases in which fentanyl is present. Numerous officers and K-9s have been hospitalized for exposure to this very dangerous substance.
This increases the importance of establishing solid safety procedures for the testing process.
"The agencies we work with have strict guidelines around how to handle narcotics and evidence properly," says Ginger Xu, product expert from Thermo Fisher Scientific, which provides the TruNarc presumptive drug testing system. TruNarc can identify nearly 250 of the highest priority illicit and abused narcotics in a single test.
"One of the benefits of TruNarc is that it enables them to easily conduct a rapid field test for substance identification with nondestructive, non-contact Raman technology that can scan directly through sealed glass and plastic containers," Xu says. "This feature helps reduce handling, and is particularly useful for preserving evidence." And because officers do not come in contact with the substance when using the TruNarc, Thermo Fisher says it is safer to use than some other technologies.
Officer safety and evidence preservation is also a priority at Thermo Fisher's competitor DetectaChem, makers of the MobileDetect testing kit, which is supported by a mobile phone app available on Android and Apple OIS. "One of the great benefits of MobileDetect is that it only needs trace amounts to render successful field tests," says Greg Giuntini, director of market development for DetectaChem.
"Samples can easily be swabbed from drug packaging as well as clothing, paper, and various drug paraphernalia," Giuntini says. "Officers are trained to use proper protective gear and that, coupled with the need only to collect trace samples, keeps first responders and law enforcement safe while they work to keep us safe."
Agencies using TruNarc include the Charles County (MD) Sheriff's Office, Porter County (IN) Sheriff's Office, the Phoenix Police Department, and others.
According to the company, DetectaChem products are used by "the top five metro police departments in our country," as well as hundreds of other state and local departments in every corner of the United States.
Getting it Right
Because evidence collected at the time of a drug seizure is critical to prosecutors actually achieving a conviction, accuracy is vital. Available presumptive drug test kits significantly increase that accuracy.
Giuntini says that testing with MobileDetect is incredibly easy.
"An officer starts by using a test pouch's removable swab and testing the sample, then squeezing the pouch to break the internal seals of the test reagent to wait for a reaction to occur," Guintini says. "Once the color change occurs, then the QR code on the pouch can be scanned with an officer's smartphone camera. Almost instantly, the app will bring up an automated result that matches the colorimetric reaction to the substance being tested."
Each scan is automatically stored in a report with images, time and date stamps, GPS mapping, and other relevant details. The DetectaChem app can record the date and time of the test as well as the GPS coordinates of the test location.
"The details in the auto-generated report were reverse engineered from a defense attorney's perspective," Guintini says. "The goal was to preemptively answer every question that an officer would normally be asked in court: How did you make the color determination? How do you know it was cocaine? Where were you when using the test? What time? What date? Did you take pictures of the test? It's all captured in MobileDetect instantly upon scanning the test pouch."
The TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer from Thermo Fisher enables an officer to accurately and safely identify a wide range of narcotics, synthetic drugs, precursors, and cutting agents by simply directing a Raman technology laser into the suspected chemical powder, liquid, solid, or tablet/pill. In most cases, within seconds the TruNarc analyzer can identify a controlled or illegal drug, a precursor chemical, or a cutting agent such as baking soda.
One of the greatest benefits of this method is that the officers do not come in contact with the suspected substance because the TruNarc analyzer employs a non-contact technology that can scan through sealed glass and plastic containers containing the substances to be tested.
This is a very accurate method for identifying a wide variety of substances because the spectroscopy takes advantage of the fact that all substances have a unique spectral fingerprint.
The library of known substances is regularly updated. This is important because foreign drug cartels frequently change the molecular structure of synthetic narcotics to evade identification and seizure by law enforcement. This allows officers to identify and seize previously unknown substances. Further, TruNarc test results can be used to press charges against the suspect immediately instead of waiting months for lab results to be completed.
Making a Difference
TruNarc and MobileDetect have led to countless convictions, taking dangerous criminals off the streets.
The rapid evolution of technology focused on field identification of narcotics has helped agencies of all sizes combat drug trafficking. The latest in these products have increased the safety of officers, deputies, federal agents, as well as K-9s, all of whom are at risk of exposure to dangerous narcotics.
These technologies also benefit prosecutors, who are armed with solid evidence they can present in court during trial.
Possibly the biggest difference is the fact that with these technologies, law enforcement is able to get the drugs off the streets and destroyed.
Doug Wyllie is contributing web editor for POLICE/PoliceMag.com.