The drug crisis has grown into a full-blown epidemic in many parts of the U.S., and is now a leading cause of injury-related death across the country. Psychostimulants remain a problem, but the overall issue is largely driven by heroin and the addition of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl into street drugs to enhance their potency.
Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and even small doses can be deadly, which is especially concerning since this chemical can enter the body through the skin and mucous membranes, as well as inhaled as an aerosolized airborne powder. This is alarming for law enforcement officers who are seeing more and more of this drug on the streets, leading to an increasing number of police departments looking for new ways to identify illegal substances at the scene.
Common Street Drugs
Street drugs can be classified into several different categories.
The use of stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine is often overshadowed by the ongoing opioid crisis, but these drugs still pose a great danger to users and a threat to the wider community. Methamphetamine is not a new drug by any means; it is widely known that soldiers—particularly German soldiers—took it during World War II to stay awake and alert, and it is currently available as a prescription medication to treat ADHD and other disorders.
Meth's potential for abuse has largely confined it to the dark depths of the criminal underworld, leading to the current dire situation in the U.S., where there has been a staggering 43% increase in the number of adults taking it between 2015 and 2019. It was also predominantly responsible for the substantial rise in overdose deaths involving psychostimulants other than cocaine over the same time period, which increased by 180 %.
Wider availability of these drugs is not the only factor helping to fuel these alarming statistics, there is also an increase in potency.
Traditionally, methamphetamines were made using ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, together with a mix of other chemicals. However, after Congress passed the Methamphetamine Reduction Act of 2005 and Mexico completely banned ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in 2009, criminals found it harder to access these base ingredients, resulting in an immediate decrease in drugs on the street. In response, drug gangs resorted to other methods to manufacture methamphetamine. For example, they are using phenyl-2-propanone as a precursor—commonly known as the P2P method—which comprises ingredients that are easier to obtain, including lead acetate, aluminum, methylamine, and mercuric chloride. These formulations have had a significant impact on the wider community, leading to increased violence and aggressiveness from users, with law enforcement officers more frequently required to restrain them.
There is a similar story with opioid use, which continues to make headlines for all the wrong reasons in the U.S. Around three million U.S. citizens have had or currently suffer from opioid use disorder, and more than 500,000 are dependent on heroin. The number of drug-involved deaths has also sharply risen in recent years, with more than 80,000 persons in the U.S. losing their lives to opioids alone in 2021. The majority of these deaths—more than 70,000—were due to fentanyl, which has become the drug of choice, not only for users because it offers a heroin-like euphoric state and intense pain relief, but also for drug suppliers looking to increase their profits.
Criminal organizations often mix fentanyl with other illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine and cutting agents, including acetaminophen or caffeine, because of its potency, and to make it cheaper to manufacture and easier to smuggle in small quantities. However, it is difficult to get an even distribution, resulting in ‘hotspots’ of overconcentrated portions that can cause overdose and death. It doesn’t take much for these serious consequences to arise—just two milligrams of fentanyl is considered a potentially lethal dose –clearly showing that drug traffickers either don’t know or don’t care what is contained in the products they are selling, most likely both.
More recently, fentanyl has been mixed with other synthetic opioids to extend and boost its effects. For example, nitazenes such as isotonitazene and protonitazene are more potent than fentanyl and have never been approved for medical use in the U.S. Alarmingly, overdoses from drugs containing higher concentrations of nitazenes may require multiple doses of naloxone, a medication sold under the brand name Narcan that reverses or reduces the effects of opioids.
Fentanyl is also being increasingly mixed with xylazine, a drug normally used as a sedative, anesthetic, or muscle relaxant in animals, legally used on horses and cattle. Xylazine is extremely dangerous for humans on its own, and creates an even more hazardous substance when mixed with fentanyl. Using increasing amounts of xylazine also limits the effects of naloxone, as the formulation of this life-saving drug only works on opioids.
The drug trade has also evolved to include counterfeit pills that are disguised as legitimate versions, mimicking prescription medications such as Adderall, alprazolam—commonly sold under the brand name Xanax to treat anxiety—30 milligram oxycodone pills (M30s), and hydrocodone.
Unbeknown to the user, these counterfeit drugs don’t comply with any pharmaceutical standards to certify that they are safe, and they are often laced with fentanyl to create deadly formulas. In fact, the DEA seized around 20 million counterfeit pills in 2021, the majority containing fentanyl, and 40% of which had a potentially lethal dose. It’s almost impossible to visually identify drugs laced with fentanyl, as it has no recognizable appearance or smell, making users and officers sometimes oblivious to the risks of the drug, and many survivors of an overdose are unaware that they took it.
Unfortunately, counterfeit medications are becoming increasingly accessible through social media and messaging platforms, connecting sellers to buyers who often think they are purchasing legitimate prescription medications. This is helping traffickers infiltrate their product into neighborhoods across the U.S., posing an alarming threat to communities. Criminal organizations are also finding ways to avoid their product being recognized, making it increasingly difficult for police officers to safely and accurately identify narcotics. They are adulterating medicines with fentanyl and fentanyl analogs such as acetylfentanyl, furanylfentanyl, and carfentanil—which is estimated to be 10,000 times more potent than morphine.
Concerns over the expansion of fentanyl’s popularity, and the incessant rate at which new illicit chemicals are emerging, have compelled law enforcement agencies to search for the latest strategies to combat the drug crisis. This includes equipping teams with technologies that can correctly identify these dangerous substances while helping to keep officers clear of their harmful effects.
Field officers encountering these drugs need safe methods to test and identify them in the field. This is especially important as fentanyl is transdermal, and can enter the body through mucous membranes in the mouth, nose, or eyes, as well as through the inhalation of aerosolized airborne powder. Even though touching it won’t always cause death or serious illness, officers who have been exposed have experienced serious side effects, ranging from coughing and difficulty breathing to sedation and disorientation, highlighting the importance of taking extreme care when dealing with a suspected substance.
Handheld Raman (laser) spectroscopy devices such as the Thermo Scientific TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer officer law enforcement personnel a highly sensitive drug testing method. Raman spectroscopy is a well-established laboratory technique that has long been used to differentiate the chemical structure of a sample, including drugs and active pharmaceutical ingredients. Recent advances in technology have turned traditional benchtop-sized instruments into devices small enough to carry in the field and simple enough for anyone to operate. Basically, officers now have access to laboratory equipment when on patrol, without the need for scientific training.
Handheld Raman spectroscopy devices offer a simple point-and-shoot presumptive field-testing method that provides non-contact, non-destructive testing for most sample types. These devices eliminate the need for sample preparation for most substances and readings can be taken through plastic or glass, reducing the risk of contamination by always keeping a barrier between officers and hazardous drugs. They also return results within seconds, speeding up analysis and enabling officers to scan more samples in less time.
These convenient handheld devices can identify hundreds of illicit chemistries, including molecules that have a similar chemical formula with a different molecular arrangement. This includes common drugs found on the street such as cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl as well as emerging analogs. Information is regularly shared from different locations—including China, Mexico, and Europe—on the latest chemistries that criminals are developing, so that as new fentanyl analogs appear, they can be added to the library to keep officers up to speed.
The bottom line is that the majority of illicit drugs these days contain fentanyl or one of its analogs, which continues to fuel the opioid crisis that has plagued the U.S. for over 30 years. Counterfeit pills, as well as the simplicity of obtaining them, are further hurdles for law enforcement, and pose a dire risk to often unaware users.
Law enforcement dealing with street drugs must therefore be equipped with the latest technologies to quickly identify illicit substances. This will help them keep these dangerous drugs off the streets and out of communities, while helping to protect officers from their harmful effects.
Gil Van Attenhoven is president and owner of G. Van & Associates Inc.
Bill Kotowski is team lead of the field and safety instruments chemical identification team at Thermo Fisher Scientific.