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Why handheld narcotics analyzers are worth the investment

These devices dramatically cut drug testing costs


It’s not uncommon for crime labs in this country to have drug testing turnaround times of 12 to 18 months or even longer.

Photo/Thermo Fisher Scientific

From crafting policy to tactical considerations, PoliceOne’s 2017 Guide to Emerging Technologies features expert analysis on soundwave technology, facial recognition software, handheld narcotics analyzers, the future of traffic stops, how constitutional law impacts the collection of data for investigations, and how advancements in biometric technologies will help improve correctional facilities.


By Julie Planchet

Across the U.S., more and more law enforcement agencies are implementing powerful, sophisticated yet easy-to-use handheld narcotics analysis technology that is designed to cut drug testing costs significantly and help officers improve the safety and welfare of the communities they protect and serve.

Traditionally, narcotics analysis has been conducted via wet chemistry tests in the field, or using very large, heavy and expensive lab equipment operated by highly trained technicians. This decade, however, handheld instruments for first responders have become smaller, faster, more affordable and easier to use, bringing reliability and objective results to the field.

They enable officers, customs, border control and other personnel to use accurate Raman spectroscopy – a proven lab analysis technique – successfully in the field. They are safer, more accurate and can test for many more illegal substances simultaneously than traditional wet chemistry kits.

These devices – used by law enforcement and drug enforcement professionals in more than 75 percent of the states across the U.S. and in approximately three dozen countries worldwide – are helping officers, detectives and state troopers get suspected drug offenders off the streets faster, prioritize their crime lab workloads and dramatically cut their drug testing costs.

Benefits of adopting this new technology

Like many law enforcement agencies, the Phoenix (Arizona) Police Department has historically faced lab backlogs due to rising case volumes, drug testing costs and other challenges associated with prosecuting drug cases. Following a successful pilot program, the Phoenix PD has more than 20 substances on its list of drugs approved for testing in the field and has deployed several handheld Raman analyzers. This has led to a high pre-adjudication rate, a substantial reduction in the number of samples going to the crime lab and a significant reduction in total drug transportation and testing costs that yielded a compelling return on investment.

Reducing crime lab backlogs

It’s not uncommon for crime labs in this country to have drug testing turnaround times of 12 to 18 months or even longer. The ability to conduct accurate field tests in a few minutes or less allows those samples to be prioritized so those cases can be investigated and prosecuted in a timely manner. Those who are found guilty can begin repaying their debts to society or getting the rehab support they need sooner, rather than being out on bail and continuing to sell or use, or having their lives put on hold.

In Franklin County, Missouri, turnaround time for sample identification at the state lab has traditionally been 8 to 12 months. The deployment of accurate handheld narcotics identification instruments now allows law enforcement to bring narcotics cases to county prosecutors within days.

More jurisdictions are also using evidence from handheld narcotics analyzers to offer plea deals. If the defendant doesn’t take the deal, the case proceeds to trial. That also helps jurisdictions prioritize what they send to the lab for confirmatory testing. The Phoenix PD maintains a pre-arraignment adjudication rate of about 85 percent in narcotics cases, with no court challenges to date.

Addressing rapidly-evolving drug threats

Thirty years ago, there were only a handful of illicit drugs on the street – cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana – and it was fairly easy to identify them on sight. But with the emergence of synthetic cathinones (bath salts), cannabinoids (K2, spice) and opioids (fentanyl, W-18), there are now hundreds of drugs on the market that all look like white powders and are visually indistinguishable from one another. And new illicit drugs, such as dibutylone, continue to find their way onto the streets.

Since the 1970s, suspected illicit drugs have traditionally been identified in the field using colorimetric wet chemistry test kits. While these tests provided insight, they also have significant drawbacks, particularly as newer technologies have emerged. Because they are drug-specific, testing multiple samples in the field can substantially reduce the volume of material left for crime lab testing and, in some cases, bring the weight below the limit for trafficking charges. And because the test results are based on observation of color changes, they are subjective and have a high rate of false positives.

Using a Raman-based handheld narcotics analyzer, an officer in the field can simply aim a laser beam at the substance and scan for hundreds of suspected illicit substances, precursors and cutting agents in a single, definitive, presumptive evidence scan.

Keeping officers safe

Some drugs, such as fentanyl, can hurt, injure or even kill officers who come in direct contact with them, so minimizing exposure whenever possible is critical. Raman-based handheld narcotics analyzers allow illegal drugs, precursors and cutting agents (with the exception of some highly-fluorescence or low-concentration substances) to be tested in-situ without removing them from their containers. This helps protect law enforcement personnel from exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals.

Chain of custody

Challenging the chain of custody is a common defense strategy in narcotics cases, since any break in that chain can exclude the evidence from being introduced. Using handheld narcotics analyzers can preserve the integrity of the chain of custody by documenting pertinent information and storing it in a way that precludes tampering. These analyzers automatically record robust, objective data for reporting, including the time, date stamp, analysis and the raw data. The scans cannot be deleted from the devices until they have been synchronized to the administrative software application, nor can synchronized scans be deleted from that application.

Since the test results can be neither manipulated nor deleted, any allegation that someone intentionally got rid of evidence can easily be disproved. Additional information – such as the arresting officer, case ID number, description and defendant – is entered manually directly within the application. And suspected narcotics, other than those with high fluorescence, can be placed into sealed evidence bags immediately and then tested through the bags, providing proof that the seized drugs could not have been tampered with prior to being introduced into evidence.

ROI for handheld narcotics analyzers

Law enforcement agencies tasked with fighting drug crimes and staying ahead of emerging narcotics threats must also stay within their budgets, so it’s vital that they explore cost savings whenever possible. For the Phoenix PD, the purchase of the handheld analyzer delivered a strong return on investment, cutting the lab’s testing costs by a projected $22,000 per month – a potential savings of $1.3 million over a five-year period.

The return on investment, however, goes well beyond dollar figures. Police departments and the communities they serve are committed to getting drug dealers off the streets and drug users on a path toward rehabilitation. Innovative handheld technology is proving to play a positive role in this effort, making them a sound investment for many police departments.

About the author
Julie Planchet is the vice president/general manager, portable analytical instruments at Thermo Fisher Scientific.