Field Narcotics Testing - Technology and Communications -

Field Narcotics Testing



Tim Dees | From the June 2008 Issue Friday, May 30, 2008

Editor's Note: This is an expanded version of the article that appeared in the print version of Law Officer magazine.

There was a lot of variation in the skills I learned in the police academy, and I'm not talking about the difference between things like filling out a traffic citation and loading a shotgun. Some of it was just plain useless. For instance, there was a baton technique called "three from the ring" that I doubt was ever executed under real-world conditions, the "nine from the sky" method being more instinctive and effective. But when we got to the unit on narcotics, the instructor told us at the outset, "Whatever you do in the field, don't taste something to see if it's heroin. That's strictly movie stuff, and hopefully you'll never find out what it tastes like, anyway." Just in case some folks weren't listening, the lesson included a tidbit that sodium and potassium cyanide were also white powders, but would kill you quickly, definitively and unpleasantly. Note to self...

Identification of controlled substances in the field has always been tricky, because most of them are pills or powders that could be pure uncut dope or baking soda, marijuana or oregano, and the people that market them are not widely known for their reverence to the concept of truth in labeling. Testing kits used to resemble My First Chemistry Set, with mixing trays and tiny bottles of reagents, at least one of which was critical to the test and always empty. Things have gotten a lot better since then. Most testing kits are self-contained, one-use items that reduce the likelihood of user error and require very small samples. Most of these are intended to identify the substances themselves, but there are also kits that test body fluids of suspects to determine if they have been using drugs. It's those that we'll discuss first before moving to the field drug ID kits.

In comparing these products, please keep in mind that all information came from the manufacturers, not from our own field tests. We don't keep a lot of narcotics around the office.

Chemical field tests for use of controlled substances are used mostly by parole and probation officers, who need a fast way of determining whether their clients have been violating the "no drugs" conditions of their release. These tests are also finding their way into the workplace as inexpensive methods of random drug testing, and by line law enforcement officers in conjunction with or in place of a Drug Influence Recognition Expert (DRE) program. These are especially useful in states like California (11550 HandS) and Nevada (NRS 453.411) where there are separate statutes governing unlawful use of controlled substances. Like other field tests, a confirming analysis by an accredited toxicology lab is required for court, but these tests can supplement or confirm the work of a DRE.

Jant Pharmacal Corp.--OrAlert , Accutest EZ Split Key Cup, Accutest IDenta
Field "use" tests usually require a urine specimen, which is both inconvenient and obnoxious to handle. Urine is still the specimen of choice to detect the widest spectrum of drugs, but a newer test developed by Jant Pharmacal uses a saliva specimen instead of urine, and screens for drug metabolites at a much lower threshold than the urine-based tests. The OrAlert saliva-testing product will detect the use of amphetamine, methamphetamine, cocaine, opiates (heroin, codeine, morphine, etc.), marijuana, and phencyclidine (PCP). It is a self-contained, one-use package that requires that the test subject place a thermometer-size collection sponge, attached to a small handle, in his mouth and keep it there for three minutes until the sponge is saturated. The sponge is then withdrawn and inserted into the test kit. Ten minutes later, the appearance of one or two lines in the test window will indicate positive or negative results.

One of the color lines is a control that shows whether there was a sufficient sample collected and if the kit was functioning properly, and will appear with any properly-administered test, regardless of results. The absence of a line in the test region of the strip designated for each drug indicates a positive test for that drug. The kit can then be sealed and sent to a laboratory for a confirming analysis, if desired.

Jant's urine test kit, the Accutest EZ Split Key Cup, screens for more drugs than the saliva test. Which product is best for your application depends on whether there is a need to screen for substances on the expanded list, and if it outweighs the inconvenience of obtaining a urine specimen. The Accutest EZ will screen for amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazapines (Valium, Librium), cocaine, marijuana, methadone (a synthetic opiate), methamphetamine, MDMA (ecstasy), opiates, oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percodan, Percocet, all semi-synthetic opiates), PCP, propoxyphene (Darvocet), and tricyclic antidepressants. Amphetamine, cocaine and methamphetamine are detected at two cut-off levels.

Accutest EZ includes a screen for common adulterants of urine that are either added to the urine or consumed by the test subject in order to produce a "clean" sample when there has been drug use. Jant recommends that any test that shows the presence of these adulterants be discarded and another test method used.

The kit displays the test results in the same way as the OrAlert, with the absence of a color line in the portion of the strip designated for that drug as the indication of a positive test. Results appear in five minutes.

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Tim DeesTim Dees was a law enforcement officer for 15 years in Nevada, and taught criminal justice full time for eight years. He holds a bachelor's degree in biological science, a master of science degree in criminal justice, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International.


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