Page 63 - Security Today, July/August 2020
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what is called “confirmation bias,” or the tendency to take any new evidence as confirmation of expectations. Labs rarely notify offi- cers when a false positive is found, so they have little experience to prompt skepticism. But every year at least 100,000 people nation- wide 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.
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 sur- vey 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.
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 por- table 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 Spec- troscopy is based upon the interaction of light with the chemical bonds within a material.
Using Raman technology, the narcotics analyzer quickly iden- tifies 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 prohib- ited 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 pow- erful 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 effec- tive 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 indi- vidual substances, solids and liquids from narcotics to explosives and chemical warfare agents to industrial chemicals and precur- sors 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 transmit- ted). The resulting signal at the detector is a spectrum represent- ing a molecular ‘fingerprint’ of the sample.
The usefulness of infrared spectroscopy arises because differ- ent chemical structures (molecules) produce different spectral fin- gerprints. Use of FTIR technology yields very precise and accu- rate 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 special- ized toxicology testing is required.
Recent surveillance has also identified other emerging syn- thetic opioids. Estimates of the potency of fentanyl analogs vary from less potent than fentanyl to much more potent than fentan- yl, but there is some uncertainty because potency of illicitly man- ufactured 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 imag- ined a decade ago are now a reality with the capability of recogniz- ing hundreds of substances with real certainty at the point of discov- ery. Using these powerful tools, law enforcement may someday stem the tide of illicit drug trafficking and save uncounted lives.
Ginger Xu is a product manager at Thermo Fisher Scientific.
1 Ryan Gabrielson and Topher Sanders, “How a $2 Roadside Drug Test Sends Innocent People to Jail” July 7, 2016, NY Times Magazine, https:// sends-innocent-people-to-jail.html
2 NFLIS 2013 Survey of Crime Laboratory Drug Chemistry Sections, html#document/p5/a306020
3 Radley Balko, The Washington Post, “Why are police departments still using drug field tests?” https:// wp/2018/03/13/why-are-police-departments-still- using-drug-field-tests/
4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Syn- thetic Opioid Overdose Data, drugoverdose/data/fentanyl.html

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