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Field Narcotics Testing

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.

Jant Pharmacal also produces a line of drug identification test kits under the Accutest IDenta label. These are self-contained, palm-size plastic kits that use a removable "sampler." The sampler is removed from the kit and pressed to the suspect substance, so that a bit clings to the tip. The sampler is then replaced in the kit, and the user squeezes the outside to break a glass ampoule containing a reagent. The user shakes the kit to mix the reagent and sample, looks for a color indicator for positive or negative results.

Each kit is specific for a type of drug, so multiple kits might be needed if the user was dealing with a completely unknown substance. Most of the kits include a neutralization reagent that makes the contents harmless, even if the kit is broken open after use. Shelf life for all tests is up to two years when stored at room temperature. Costs range from $1.20 to $4.00 per test.

BAE Systems-NIK and ODV
BAE Systems is not yet a well-known name in law enforcement suppliers, but it will be soon. This is because they bought Armor Holdings, which previously bought a pile of other police equipment manufacturers like Safariland, Bianchi, Monadnock, and Second Chance. The scientific and forensics products are grouped under Forensics Source, where you can get information and order just about anything forensic, or request one of their 340-page catalogs. NIK and ODV are their two field drug testing product lines.

NIK products start with the premise that the user doesn't know what the suspect substance is. The ODV tests are specific for certain drugs or groups of drugs (methamphetamine and MDMA, for instance), and are used to confirm what you think you already know.

NIK tests are contained in a plastic pouch. The user takes enough of the material to fill a two mm circle, places it in the "Test A" pouch, and seals it with a clip. The user then breaks the first of up to three glass ampoules within the pouch, each containing a reagent. He shakes the pouch to mix the contents, and looks for a color change. Which color is observed determines whether another ampoule in the same pouch is broken and mixed, or whether the user goes to another test (and another pouch) and repeats the procedure. Some drugs only require two pouches, but GHB, the so-called "date rape" drug, requires the longest test chain at seven tests. The tests are sealed within the pouch, and the user never touches the chemicals or the glass ampoules.

The color indicators are printed on the outside of each pouch, so there's no need to compare the color changes to a separate chart or card which is easy to lose. NIK offers a free self-paced CD that guides the user through the procedures associated with the use of NIK tests. The user can then take a test, graded by a third party, and if desired, pay a $15 fee to obtain a training certificate from NIK. There are also training kits for users that want to do more conventional classroom training on the use of the kits.

ODV test kits fall into two types: the NarcoPouch and the NarcoTest. The NarcoPouch is similar in appearance to the NIK tests, and contain up to three glass ampoules per pouch. The test procedure is much the same as with the NIK tests. Each pouch is designed to be used with a specific drug or closely related group of drugs, such as cocaine HCl (powder) or cocaine base (crack cocaine).

NarcoTest employs a tube instead of a pouch. These are the types of tests often seen in the movies, where the guy taking delivery of the drug shipment takes a bit of the product, puts it in a tube, and shakes it up to see how pure it is. The principle is the same as with NarcoPouches, but NarcoTests contain a max of two glass ampoules. NarcoTests are cheaper, but they are not NIJ compliant. This could be a concern if you were using federal funding to purchase the kits.

Both NIK and ODV tests are intolerant of exposure to temperature extremes and/or prolonged exposure to bright sunlight, both of which will cause the reagents to break down. This means that they should not be carried in the trunk of a patrol car unless their use is fairly imminent. Most of the NIK test pouches are priced at around $2.50 each, although the GHB test is about $5.00 per test and the primary "Test A" pouch is $1.50. NIK test pouches are available for all of the common drugs of abuse, as well as GHB, LSD, PMA and MDMA (variants of ecstasy), PCP, prophoxyphene (Darvon), ephedrine, diazepam (Valium), rohypnol ("roofies"), methcathinone, methaqualone (Quaalude, Sopor), ketamine, and pentazocine (Talwin).

ODV NarcoPouches and NarcoTests are available for most of the drugs listed above, plus psilocybin (hallucinogenic mushrooms). NarcoPouches range from $1.50 to $2.00 per test, while NarcoTests are all priced at about $1.20 per test. Neutralization packs are available for both NIK and ODV pouch tests.

ODV has the distinction of being the oldest presumptive drug test line in the industry, with NIK not far behind. This means these products have the longest record of court challenges, and the credibility of having been validated over and over again.

MMC International
MMC International is a Dutch company that employs distributors in over 60 countries to sell their products worldwide. Their U.S. distributor is Tri-Tech Inc. in North Carolina.

MMC International tests consist of a glass ampoule with a plastic cap. The ampoule contains a dry chemical, usually in crystallized form, and inert nitrogen gas. With some tests, the cap contains a separate dry chemical used in the test. The user breaks off the pre-scored neck of the glass ampoule, and places a bit of the suspect material inside using the spatula or pipette. The user then covers the open neck with the cap. The color change, if any, indicates a positive or negative test.

Each test is drug-specific, so the user either needs to have an idea what drug is suspected, or else have a lot of different tests on hand. These tests also require the user to be careful, as the glass is not captured in a plastic enclosure. However, MMC's literature indicates that there are no dangerous chemicals used in the tests, and therefore no need to neutralize anything when done. The company's instructions conclude with "Just trash the test."

MMC International tests are available for all major drugs of abuse, many of the less-widely used drugs, and for some PCP precursors. The company also markets some unique testing products, such as a cocaine spray test to detect cocaine on the surface of objects, and a similar test that uses prepackaged wipes. The assortment of kits available include a variety of the glass ampoule tests, spray and wipe tests, and supplemental gear such as scales, spatulas, pipettes, and gloves. The tests vary in cost from about $1.40 to $2.00 per test, sold in boxes of ten tests each.

QuantRx-Fieldtests ID
Fieldtest ID is a new product manufactured by QuantRx, a medical diagnostics company, and sold by Fieldtests LLC. Fieldtest ID uses a different approach to testing that minimizes the amount of sample needed, and can test for multiple drugs in a single pass.

Each test is contained in a foil packet, which holds the test enclosure, two sterile swabs, a small vial of liquid extraction buffer, and a desiccant. The test is begun by placing a small (as in nanogram-small) sample of the suspect liquid or powder in the vial of liquid. This can be done manually, or by dipping or rubbing the swab, dry or moistened with the buffer solution, on the substance or a surface thought to hold the substance. The user than sticks one end of the test enclosure–it resembles a home pregnancy test–into the vial. Once the liquid in the vial starts being absorbed by the test strip and begins to migrate up the strip by capillary action, the enclosure is removed and the vial and buffer discarded.

Within a few minutes, one or more colored lines will appear in the window of the enclosure. A line opposite a "C" (for Control) indicates a successful, properly performed test. A line opposite the letter corresponding to the type of drug being screened is a negative test for that drug. If there is no line, the test is positive, and the drug was detected in the sample. The test strip and color lines remain fixed, and can be introduced as evidence in court, if desired.

The test has to be conducted at room temperature, but Fieldtests LLC says the tests are not sensitive to long-term temperature extremes. They'll survive storage in the trunk of a patrol car, and have a shelf life of 24 months. The extraction buffer is harmless, and there are no other chemicals that require neutralization or special handling.

Fieldtest ID is presently producing five test kits for various combinations of drugs. The manufacturer will consider producing a test with special combinations of drugs if there is sufficient demand. Fieldtests LLC says that pricing will be about $1.00 per drug, and under $3.00 for a three-drug test kit.

NarTest is not a field test for narcotics, but enough of an innovation and a unique product that it deserves mention here.

Where all of the products listed above are presumptive tests for narcotics, NarTest is a conclusive test, but one that is run outside of a crime lab. The NarTest device is intended for law enforcement agencies to use in-house and produce courtroom-defensible conclusive analyses of contraband drugs.

The NarTest device is about the size of a desktop copier. The intended operators are lay people, not forensic chemists. Typically, two officers from an agency would be trained by NarTest and certified to work independently after they have run 25 samples with parallel lab analysis for validation.

Samples are tested by dissolving 10 (20 is preferred) mg of the suspect material in water or ethanol and placing the solution into a disposable measuring cell. The device is able to detect for the presence or absence of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine, which each have their unique spectral fluorescence signature. According to the DEA, these drugs make up 84% of abused drugs in the U.S. At the conclusion of the test a report is issued stating the drug detected, along with additional case and evidence information.

Cost of the NarTest device is $48,000 MSRP, which includes consumables sufficient for 50 tests, a computer, printer and monitor that are dedicated to the NarTest machine, a balance (scale), an uninterruptible power supply, and two days of training for the operators. NarTest will negotiate pricing. This is clearly a significant cost, but compares favorably with the cost of outsourcing drug analyses in an agency with a lot of drug cases, not to mention that conclusive results are available on the same day as the arrest.

When and if the tests run on the device are challenged in court, NarTest will supply a forensic chemist for testimony. After the first year, a service agreement with NarTest is $8000 per year, and does not include the cost of consumables. NarTest says that their device is already in use by several U.S. law enforcement agencies.

About The Author


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