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Look, don’t touch: Drug analyzer tells you what you’ve found without contact

Raman spectroscopy can identify dangerous substances in a way that’s quick and safe

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Touchless identification of unknown substances in the field can help officers remain safe even when dangerous drugs are found.

Thermo Fisher Scientific

By John Erich, Police1 BrandFocus Staff

May 2022: Officers in Punta Gorda, Florida were searching the bag of a man found asleep in his car when an “unknown powdery substance” blew into an officer’s face. The officer was taken to the hospital for observation.

July 2022: Police in Lynnwood, Washington were back at headquarters, analyzing some recovered drugs and paraphernalia, when a “small ball of unknown powder exploded on a table.” Three officers were examined at a local hospital, and the building was evacuated.

September 2022: Two Arizona sisters were indicted after deputies allegedly found more than 850,000 counterfeit pills containing fentanyl in their vehicle during a traffic stop. “Two out of five counterfeit pills that come across our border are laced with lethal doses of fentanyl,” Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell told the local Fox affiliate.

All officers in the above cases were thankfully fine. But these incidents – all from the last six months – amply demonstrate the frequency with which law enforcement personnel can encounter unknown dangerous substances in powders and pills, and the challenges that come with not knowing what they’re facing when they do.

Recent years have seen countless such scares. And even when exposures don’t harm police, they come with costs: Officers fearing symptoms may get multiple doses of naloxone, be taken out of service and rushed to hospitals, and receive numerous other interventions to protect against possible overdose.

If those officers could know at the scene what they were facing, many of those costs could be avoided.


Before the rise of illicit fentanyl, police often field-tested unknown substances using colorimetric spot tests with reactive agents that produced different colors depending on the drugs present. That required contact, though – physically adding a bit of the drug to a solution.

But colorimetric field tests can be unreliable, and when potentially deadly fentanyl began turning up in users’ powders and pills, many departments reconsidered such handling for safety reasons. However, the alternative – sending seized substances for analysis and waiting for backed-up labs to process them before proceeding with criminal cases – can be slow, inefficient and not conducive to the timely removal of threats from the streets.

A better solution has been Raman spectroscopy. With this technology officers use a handheld device for presumptive testing that subjects the tested substance – solid, liquid or gas – to a high-intensity light beam. Atoms in the molecules of organically based compounds, like common drugs of abuse, vibrate at distinct frequencies, and the way they scatter that light can provide precise identification of the substance being tested.

Invented in the 1920s by Indian physicist C.V. Raman, who won a Nobel Prize for it, Raman spectroscopy is well established, highly accurate, accepted by bodies like the Scientific Working Group for the Analysis of Seized Drugs and has a record of acceptance in federal court proceedings. Thermo Fisher Scientific brings this capability to officers in the field with the Thermo Scientific TruNarc Handheld Narcotics Analyzer.


Used by law enforcement in all 50 U.S. states and more than 50 countries worldwide, the TruNarc is a handheld narcotics identification system for the field that quickly identifies numerous narcotics in seconds with a single test. It allows identification for hundreds of potential substances, including the most dangerous and abused narcotics, without user interpretation required. Its library encompasses the grave threats of fentanyl, its related compounds and analogs with evolving new library updates that keep up with emerging threats.

The TruNarc also identifies a broad range of stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens and analgesics, most with no user interpretation required, as well as common precursors and cutting agents.

Without contact or destruction of the tested sample, Raman analysis, as a presumptive test, helps minimize contamination and preserve evidence for court cases. As America’s opioid crisis rages on, and especially as new drugs and combinations emerge, that’s important. As little as 2 mg of fentanyl can be deadly, and seizures of both powders and pills containing it – including in combination with heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine – show no signs of slowing, rising again in 2022 even from 2021 levels.


Identifying such a broad range of drugs with a single test roadside or at the scene saves time and money, but even more important, it enhances safety.

While the police in the scenarios described earlier weren’t harmed, their experiences were concerning and caused stress for their loved ones. Touchless identification of unknown substances in the field can help prevent that and help officers – and, with them, the rest of their communities – remain safe even when dangerous drugs are found.

Visit Thermo Fisher Scientific for more information.

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