New Tech for Drug Detection

June 11, 2019

On a warm summer night in Camden County, Ga., a Camden County Sheriff’s deputy is operating a Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) laser speed measurement device on Interstate 95/Georgia 405. Suddenly, the deputy observes a vehicle traveling northbound above the maximum speed limit. The deputy then confirms this violation with the LIDAR and conducts a traffic stop.

During the traffic stop, the deputy develops probable cause to search the vehicle. While searching the car, the deputy discovers a clear plastic baggy containing a powder he suspects is fentanyl. In the past, the deputy would conduct a presumptive field test by placing the suspected narcotic into a pouch and then gently squeezing to crush glass vials, releasing a chemical reagent. When a predictable color or series of colors occurred within a specific testing sequence, a positive confirmation was presumed.

The cost of these presumptive field test kits adds up over time. Various drugs kits range in price for a box containing ten test kits. For an agency devoted to taking drugs off the the streets, this impacts how law enforcement officers investigate these cases. “We are under extreme budget constraints in our efforts to remove these deadly drugs from the streets of Camden County,” said Sheriff Jim Proctor. Over 25 miles of the drug pipeline known as Interstate 95 run through Camden County. Sheriff Proctor is determined to seize as many narcotics as possible from the hands of those who would distribute them.

Another concern of these presumptive field test kits involves their use. Questions have been raised concerning their accuracy and limitations, and some kits are not available to test the more exotic drugs of abuse. Although seized drugs have to be sent to a state laboratory for confirmatory testing, these overburdened labs can take weeks, or even months, before they are able to provide prosecutors test results.

According to the Network Environmental Systems, Inc. (NES) (2017):

Officials with the Las Vegas crime lab have formally advocated abandoning the use of field tests for certain kinds of drugs, including meth. With the combination of the technical limitations of these kits and inadequate training—or the lack thereof—false results can be expected. (para. 6)

As stated by Bugay and Cipoletti (2018):

Law enforcement officers responsible for reducing narcotics trafficking and drug abuse have many challenges. The war on drugs is not slowing down; in fact, new drugs are appearing on street corners and in high schools every day. (para. 1).

Now, Thermo Fisher Scientific has developed a new drug-recognition technology that is saving lives, taxpayer dollars, and making law enforcement and prosecutors more productive.

Thermo Fisher Scientific’s device is called a TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer. The small apparatus looks like a Nintendo 2DS, but it sells for approximately $25,000. Law enforcement officials in Phoenix, Ariz., report each device saves them $22,000 in a single month.

As reported by Thermo Fisher Scientific, the TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer affords law enforcement the accuracy and reliability of a narcotics and drug test lab anywhere they go. With the TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer, numerous illegal substances are easily identified using lab-proven Raman spectroscopy.

Officers operating the TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer can identify nearly 250 of the highest priority illicit and abused narcotics in a single drug test, saving time and money. Unlike the old presumptive field test kits, the TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer conducts a single drug test for multiple controlled substances providing precise, definitive results for likely identification with no user interpretation.

The TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer provides law enforcement officers the ability to analyze critical drugs of abuse as well as common cutting agents, precursors, and emerging threats such as fentanyl, numerous fentanyl compounds including carfentanil, common street fentanyl analogs, pharmaceutical variants (Alfentanil and Sufentanil), as well as two fentanyl precursors, NPP and ANPP.

According to the U.S. Library of Medicine (2019):

Carfentanil or carfentanyl (Wildnil) is an analog of the popular synthetic opioid analgesic fentanyl and is one of the most potent opioids known (also the most potent opioid used commercially). Carfentanil was first synthesized in 1974 by a team of chemists at Janssen Pharmaceutica which included Paul Janssen. It has a quantitative potency approximately 10,000 times that of morphine and 100 times that of fentanyl, with activity in humans starting at about 1 microgram. It is marketed under the trade name Wildnil as a general anesthetic agent for large animals. Carfentanil is intended for large-animal use only as its extreme potency makes it inappropriate for use in humans. Currently, sufentanil, approximately 10–20 times less potent (500 to 1000 times the efficacy of morphine per weight) than carfentanil, is the maximum strength fentanyl analog for use in humans. (para. 1)

Exposure to fentanyl and other drugs is a significant concern for law enforcement officers working narcotics interdiction. Exposure to fentanyl through the skin has been discussed by several media outlets and even reported during a segment of 60 Minutes as life-threatening. Members of the scientific community are now debating this. Dr. Ryan Marino, Division of Medical Toxicology, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Pittsburg School of Medicine, disagrees with the notion little exposure to fentanyl can lead death for law enforcement officers and first responders. According to Marino, “I just hope that people can use a little more critical thinking” (Live Science, 2019).

According to Live Science (2019):

Despite occasional news stories about police officers and other first responders experiencing ill effects or needing Narcan, an opioid antidote, after exposure to fentanyl, Marino said he doesn’t know of any verified medical cases of a first responder testing positive for fentanyl through mere skin contact or being in the vicinity of the drug. And overdosing in such a scenario seems highly unlikely based on what researchers know about fentanyl and other opioids. (para. 3)

Per TimesUnion (2016):

The American College of Medical Toxicology and American Academy of Clinical Toxicology had been in the process of drafting a position paper on fentanyl exposure — one that would debunk the growing lore around the skin and airborne exposure — when the Ohio story broke. The symptoms that police in towns across the nation seemed to be experiencing, medical professionals said, were more consistent with a panic attack than opioid overdose. (para. 8)

Although Dr. Marino doesn’t know of any verified medical cases of a first responder testing positive for fentanyl through mere skin contact or being in the vicinity of fentanyl, Marino does advise to use universal precautions, Nitrile gloves, and to avoid using hand sanitizers because they may increase drug absorption.

While the scientific and medical communities debate the dangers of exposure to fentanyl and other drugs, law enforcement officers are still at risk. Therefore, law enforcement agencies should provide their officers with the tools necessary to enforce the law while reducing the risks to their officers’ health and well-being.

Regardless of the opinions surrounding fentanyl exposure, law enforcement officers can use the TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer to reduce the handling of these dangerous narcotics. Officers can use the TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer to scan directly through plastic or glass for most drug test samples to minimize contamination, reduce exposure, and preserve evidence. Reduction of handling these narcotics increases officer safety and supports the prosecution of narcotics cases.

A warning of caution, though: Training is still required to use these devices to ensure proper and sufficient use, and to limit the challenges presented by defense attorneys in the courtroom.

According to NES (2017):

Training on the use of the field test kits and the new drug-detection instruments is essential. Training must involve more than merely learning how to use the equipment. Some level of understanding about the relevant chemistry and how the tools work is essential and needs to be part of that training. A “black-box” approach, in which officers only learn to use the instruments, is insufficient. Users need to know more, such as what can produce false results, when and why the devices shouldn’t be used, how to identify substances that can affect their use, and how to deal with exceptions. (para. 9)

After realizing the benefits of the TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer, many smaller agencies are still incapable of purchasing the device for $25,000. But there are resources available to assist these agencies in obtaining the necessary funding. One support is the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program Fiscal Year 2019 State Solicitation and another is the Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Site-based Program FY 2019 Competitive Grant Announcement. These grants require local governments to apply on behalf of law enforcement agencies. Additional funding resources may need a little creativity, such as reaching out to corporate and business partners for funding.   

Once obtaining the necessary funding for the TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer device, law enforcement agencies will began to reap the benefits of this new technology created to enhance law enforcement’s desire to make our communities safer.

Thermo Fisher Scientific’s mission is to enable its customers to make the world healthier, cleaner, and safer. Thermo Fisher Scientific has accomplished this goal with its new drug-recognition technology aiding law enforcement in battling this national drug crisis.

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