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Fighting the third wave of the opioid crisis: Officer safety and investigative challenges

Given the complexity of the crisis from a safety and investigative standpoint, officers must be equipped with the right technology

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Narcotics detection devices can help law enforcement identify dangerous substances like fentanyl more safely and accurately.

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Sponsored by ThermoFisher Scientific

By Cole Zercoe for Police1 BrandFocus

The opioid crisis in the United States is worsening. Fueled by the pandemic, the proliferation of synthetic opioids and the number of fatal overdoses caused by them is spiking dramatically. As the potency and purity of these synthetic narcotics becomes more unpredictable, the risk to both the public and first responders, as well as the difficulty for law enforcement officers to quickly identify the drugs and get them off the streets, increases. Given the complexity of the crisis from a safety and investigative standpoint, it’s vital that officers are equipped with the right technology to fight back against this urgent public safety issue.


From an increase in domestic violence incidents to a spike in fatal vehicle crashes, the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has created a number of unforeseen consequences to public safety. Chief among them has been the tightening of the opioid epidemic’s grip on America. The record-setting numbers tell a bleak story: over 93,000 people fatally overdosed in 2020, a nearly 30% rise from the year prior.

“This is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, and the largest increase since at least 1999,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told NPR.

The various stresses of the pandemic, as well as the difficulty in accessing some drug treatment programs and medical care, has further complicated a crisis that is being predominantly driven by synthetic narcotics like fentanyl and its analogues. Opioids, including synthetic opioids, were the cause of 69,710 of the fatal overdoses last year – a number alone that, as pointed out by NPR, is nearly as high as the total number of overdose deaths from any drug in 2019.


The nature of the opioid crisis has continued to evolve. From prescription drugs fueling the first wave of the epidemic to heroin rising up in the second wave of the crisis, clandestinely-produced synthetic opioids (with fentanyl leading the pack) have now become the primary driver of overdose deaths in this new phase. Roughly 57,000 people died from synthetic opioids in 2020 compared to 13,000 from heroin. And it’s not just an import business – homegrown synthetic narcotics are also making their way to the streets. The supply chain issues in the illicit drug trade caused by the pandemic has furthered the need for backyard chemists working regionally. With that comes increasingly impure narcotics that can be difficult to identify and unpredictably hazardous to those exposed to them.


This third wave of the opioid crisis is particularly dangerous for both law enforcement and the public because it is defined by potent, unpredictable synthetic opioids that are being found in everything from fake oxycontin pills to cocaine and amphetamines. There have been numerous incidents across the US of drug users dying from ingesting substances far more potent than they realized, and police officers being sickened from exposure to unknown illicit substances during the course of their duties.

In addition to keeping officers and the public safe during this phase of the epidemic, just as challenging is quickly and accurately identifying dangerous chemicals with various impurities. Whether to get dealers off the streets or divert addicts into treatment programs to get them the help they need, the ability to rapidly identify drugs is paramount to rapid resolutions.

Narcotics detection devices like the TruNarc, the 1064Defender and the Gemini by ThermoFisher Scientific, can help remove the uncertainty around chemical identification. These devices have “touchless” Raman spectroscopic engines that can see through clear and translucent packaging, allowing officers to conduct a presumptive test and positively identify the substance without exposure for most substances.

TruNarc and Gemini LowDoseID are also specifically designed to target impure substances, with an ability to identify the increasingly-common instances of narcotics like fentanyl and its analogs in low concentrations. 1064Defender features a fluorescence suppression technology that enables the devices to make accurate identifications of heroin and heroin mixed with synthetic opioids that would otherwise block the spectral peaks of the chemicals.

Given the constantly evolving nature of the opioid crisis, keeping up to date on the emerging threats can be daunting. ThermoFisher Scientific’s products feature an extensive, expandable spectral library that is continually updated with the latest controlled substances, cutting agents, and precursors, allowing officers to move quickly through the identification and prosecution process, protecting both law enforcement and citizens by getting dangerous narcotics off the street.


The challenges in 2021 and beyond in the fight against the opioid epidemic are monumentally difficult, but with the right tools and technology, LEOs on the frontline of the crisis can be better protected from potential exposure and well-positioned to quickly bring these cases to resolution – making headway in this uphill battle.

This article originally appeared in Evolving strategies to win the war on opioids.

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