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How a new handheld tool is helping narcotics investigators in Kentucky

The portable TruNarc device provides on-the-spot analysis of unknown substances that can provide definitive identification without requiring officers to handle dangerous drugs

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The portable, handheld TruNarc Narcotics Analyzer can analyze and identify a multitude of drugs and other substances in the field in a matter of seconds. Because it can identify most through their packaging, it doesn’t require actual contact with the substances themselves, which helps keep officers safe from accidental exposure.

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In Kentucky, law enforcement officers and the Kentucky State Police Forensic Laboratory System have gained a new tool in their battle against the proliferation of illicit and dangerous drugs in the state. More than a dozen drug task force agencies across Kentucky are currently using the Thermo Scientific TruNarc Narcotics Analyzer, with nearly 40 of the units in use throughout the state. This portable, handheld electronic device can analyze and identify a multitude of drugs and other substances in the field in a matter of seconds with high accuracy and precision.

The TruNarc does not consume or destroy any of the substance being tested in the process, helping to preserve evidence. Best of all, it doesn’t require actual contact with the substances themselves, because it is able to identify most of them even through their packaging. This helps keep officers safe from accidental exposure to harmful narcotics and other dangerous substances.

“A lot of times when you had to do a field test, you had to take the substance out of its package. Now we don’t have to do that, so that limits our officers’ exposure to potentially harmful substances,” said Todd Young, deputy director of the Bowling Green-Warren County Drug Task Force.

The Crystal Meth Problem

Kentucky’s problems with illicit drugs aren’t terribly different from those of other states. Currently, the primary drugs encountered include fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana. These make up 95% of the total volume of illicit drugs interdicted, according to Jeremy Triplett, drug section supervisor with the Kentucky State Police forensic laboratories.

By far the biggest and fastest-growing problem, he says, is crystal meth, a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that resembles glass fragments or shiny, bluish-white rocks. Other common names for methamphetamine include blue, crystal, ice, meth and speed. The drug can be easily made in small clandestine laboratories with relatively inexpensive over-the-counter ingredients, such as pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient in cold medications, plus a number of other very dangerous chemicals.

The interception of crystal meth and other illegal drugs has become a severe policing problem worldwide. It is difficult for law enforcement personnel in the field to at least initially identify any particular substance as likely being a prohibited one. This can lead to false arrests or releasing suspects who are indeed carrying illegal drugs.

While a properly equipped lab can make a definitive analysis, typical lab equipment does not lend itself to use by law enforcement personnel in the field because it is too heavy, too large, difficult to operate or too expensive to distribute widely to large numbers of law enforcement personnel.

Colorimetric Analysis Methods

Prior to adopting the TruNarc, law enforcement in Kentucky utilized common wet-chemistry test kits to identify narcotics in the field. These kits call for a series of dilutions, and officers must interpret color changes in order to correctly identify a substance. This is known as colorimetric analysis.

The method is widely used in medical laboratories and for industrial purposes, such as the analysis of water samples in connection with industrial water treatment. But colorimetric testing is not very specific, it is not always reliable, and 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 testing do not always support probable cause in charging a drug suspect. Instead, all suspect samples collected from alleged offenders often must be transported considerable distances to a properly equipped laboratory facility. Colorimetric test kits can often identify classes of compounds rather than specific substances, so it is an imperfect field analysis method.

Raman Spectroscopy: A Better Way

The TruNarc narcotics analyzer uses Raman spectroscopy – essentially a laser light beam – to analyze substances. Raman spectroscopy is a technique used to determine vibrational modes of molecules, and thus accurately and precisely identify specific substances that these molecules comprise. The technique is based upon the interaction of light with the chemical bonds within a material, and the tool does not need to be in direct contact with the material to analyze it, because the light beam can “see” through translucent packaging material.

Raman spectroscopy relies on the scattering of monochromatic light (using a laser), which changes the excitation states of the molecules, which will then emit light. Each material emits its own specific Raman spectrum. As each specimen fluoresces in the Raman range, it emits a unique signature that permits the specimen to be identified and characterized. This spectrum of light is analyzed with a spectrometer, and then this wavelength signature is compared with a library of known Raman signatures in order to identify the precise identity of the specimen. This is how a TruNarc narcotics analyzer can accurately identify hundreds of individual substances.

Using Raman technology, the TruNarc narcotics analyzer can quickly identify a wide range of illegal drugs, including narcotics, synthetic drugs like methamphetamine, cutting agents and precursor materials. Analysis is performed in a single test, using the portable, handheld tool on the spot. Most drug samples can be quickly identified by simply pressing the sample – contained in a plastic bag, for example – against the nose cone and then pressing the “scan” button. The TruNarc is capable of identifying up to 324 prohibited substances in 30 seconds or less per sample, and it can scan for up to 500 total substances in a single, definitive test.

“The TruNarc technique is highly sensitive, but it is likewise robust, a much stronger and safer technique than the old colorimetric system,” said Triplett the KSP drug lab supervisor, “And because it is so much faster, it’s also a powerful forensic backlog management tool. Its high throughput capability makes it very effective in the reduction of such backlogs in the labs.”