Page 62 - Security Today, July/August 2020
P. 62

Precise Analysis
Technology provides the greatest ally in speed and accuracy for substance analyzers
BIy Ginger Xu
n the war on illicit drug trafficking to- day, a law enforcement professional’s greatest allies are speed and accuracy. Lack of speed may have the conse-
quence of delayed justice and inaccurate substance analysis may result in a wrong- ful 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 de- gree than ever before, and this is critical because illicit trafficking in ever-more- dangerous drugs such as fentanyl is in- creasing exponentially worldwide.
Speedy and accurate results of substance analysis at the point of interdiction are criti- cal, 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 dis- cretion and intuitive thinking on the part of law enforcement professionals, but re- liable technology can help make their job easier by providing confirmation and re- sults that can be trusted unquestionably.
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 admin- istration of a dose of NARCAN antidote.
It could also prevent the officer from making contact with the dangerous synthet- ic 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 to- day, allowing the guilty to avoid justice, and worse, allowing innocent people to be wrong- fully detained while they wait to be cleared. Delays and backlogs, the result of inadequate and inaccurate testing technology and the ex-
“Using these powerful tools, law enforcement may someday stem the tide of illicit drug trafficking and save uncounted lives.”
plosion in illegal drug use, hurt the innocent as often as they don’t identify the guilty.
But what did we do before the days of better analyzer technology? Law enforce- ment most frequently used common wet- chemistry 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 chemi- cal element or chemical compound in a so- lution 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 transport- ed considerable distances to a properly-
equipped laboratory facility. Colorimetric test kits can often identify ‘classes’ of com- pounds 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, rou- tinely produce false positives and are un- reliable.1 The field tests seem simple, but a lot can go wrong.
Some tests use a single tube of a chemi- cal 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.
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 Stan- dards 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
Stephen Barnes/

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