Is TruNarc the Answer to the Bath Salts Menace? Or Just the Latest Breathalyzer?

Police departments around the country are getting hot and bothered by a hand-held device that they hope will be the key to detecting an ever-morphing range of synthetic drugs such as oh-so-scary "bath salts" that are as hard for police to detect as they are for the law to keep up with. By pointing the TruNarc analyzer at a sample — even inside a clear container — police can identify the latest drugs, so long as they keep their data up-to-date, boosters promise. They see it as the sort of game-changer the breathalyzer has been — which just may be the problem.

Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Police in a few departments around the U.S. are testing a hand-held laser device that its boosters say can immediately identify illegal drugs and could revolutionize how narcotics cases are investigated and prosecuted.

Proponents hope the device, called TruNarc, will help officers quickly discern illicit substances at a time when police are seeing a surge in new, harder-to-identify designer drugs such as the psychoactive powders known as "bath salts."

According to manufacturer, Thermo Fisher Scientific, of Waltham, Massachusetts:

With the TruNarc instrument, the accuracy and reliability of a narcotics lab are available anywhere you go. Narcotics, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens and analgesics are all easily identified using lab-proven Raman spectroscopy.

So long as you accept the premise of drug prohibition, the TruNarc widget sounds like an improvement over current chemical field tests, aside from its $20,000 price tag. After all, current field tests have a nasty tendency to go horribly wrong, famously identifying soap, for instance, as GHB, with a stay in the clink as the booby prize for unlucky subjects of the faulty technology. By contrast, says the Boston Globe, in a report on a pilot program in the Quincy, Massachusetts, police department, "Some training is needed to use the device, and thus far, the device has been 100 percent accurate — continually matching up with results that are sent off to the lab, the manufacturer says."

Wow! One hundred percent accuracy! You don't often see those kinds of results. In fact, I don't remember ever coming across a product that was "100 percent accurate."

The Globe went on to quote Lt. Patrick Glynn, the head of the Quincy police drug unit, comparing TruNarc to another much-trusted technology. "Glynn compared it to the evolution of Breathalyzer tests. The technology is at its beginning, but will soon become the norm, he predicted."

The Wall Street Journal article made a similar comparison.

Paul Keenan, chief of police in Quincy, Mass., said his detectives have been using it for months alongside traditional drug-testing kits.

"It's cop-proof. It's rugged, dependable and easy to use," said Chief Keenan. He compared the potential impact of the device to breath analyzers used on suspected drunken drivers, which allow street cops to produce data routinely accepted in court. Breathalyzers have led to a greater percentage of guilty pleas and fewer trials in drunken-driving cases, reducing police and court costs, he said.

That Breathalyzer comparison may not be the endorsement those officers think it is. Professor David J, Hanson of the State University of New York - Potsdam points out that the broad range of devices generically called "breathalyzers" have proven less completely accurate than originally hoped.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has found that dieters and diabetics can have acetone levels hundreds and even thousand of times higher than that in others. Acetone is one of the many substances that can be falsely identified as ethyl alcohol by some breath machines.

One investigator has reported that alcohol-free subjects can generate BAC readings of about .05 after eating various types of bread products.

Substances in the environment can also lead to false BAC readings. For example, an alcohol-free subject was asked to apply a pint of contact cement to a piece of plywood and then to apply a gallon of oil-base paint to a wall. The total activity lasted about an hour. Twenty minutes later the subject was tested on an Intoxilyzer, which registered a BAC of .12 percent. This level is 50% higher than a BAC of .08, which constitutes legal intoxication in many states.

A 2007 report prepared for the New Jersey Supreme Court found that at least one type of breath-analysis device was unreliable if used improperly. Last year, an Ohio judge said the machines can be gamed by police who want to guarantee a reading over the limit and may be subject to interference from cell phones.

Sure enough, the Wall Street Journal found some doubts about the unimpeachability of TruNarc, even among its fans:

Joseph Bozenko, a clandestine-laboratory coordinator for the Drug Enforcement Administration, uses a Raman-spectroscopy device in drug labs around the world. He said the newer versions of the technology are getting "rave reviews'' from his colleagues in the field, but cautioned that the issue is more complicated than just shrinking lab equipment to a portable size and using it in the street or police station."That technology is in no way a substitute for full routine analysis and a certified laboratory setting," said Mr. Bozenko. "I would not go to court based on a test I ran in a clandestine laboratory in the middle of a mountain crime scene."

Other experts say it is risky to put lab technology in the hands of law-enforcement officers without a background in science.

And note that TruNarc is being sold as non-intrusive and easy to use — just point and click. As the price per unit comes down, the urge to point and click a lot is likely to become overwhelming.

Again, taking drug prohibition as a given, for now, TruNarc may well be an improvement over current drug field tests, if used under the same circumstances and if it is less likely to deliver false positives on perfectly legal substances. But if police and its manufacturers continue to peddle it as an infallible cure-all that's "rugged, dependable and easy to use" — just like the breathalyzer! — then we're almost certain to get at least breathalyzer-style problems once it's adopted. (HT Groovus Maximus)

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  • ||

    Other experts say it is risky to put lab technology in the hands of law-enforcement officers without a background in science.

    Hahahahahahahah, ya think? They also lack a background in ethics.

  • sloopyinca||

    They also lack a background in ethics.

    And public relations.
    And firearms training.
    And...

  • R||

    They're pretty good at being thugs and bullies, though, so I guess there's that...

  • Brett L||

    I eagerly await the passage of a law that prevents me from having a residence if I don't submit any and all surfaces to the TruNarc because an officer says I should. After all, living inside is a privilege not a right.

  • Bandits||

    And, of course, when you're outside you're in public, so there's no expectation of privacy...

  • WWNGD?||

    ... unless you are a police officer, they deserve all the privacy. You as a citizen should have nothing to fear if you are not doing anything wrong.

  • daveInAustin||

    The operators just need more training. Just like they needed for the AED 651.

  • ||

    Hmm, I wonder what would show up if you were to use this on the seats and dashboard of a police cruiser. Besides donut crumbs, I mean.

  • R C Dean||

    I've wondered the same thing, only with those handheld ultraviolet lights.

  • ||

    Hooker slime and cop jizz? You know you were thinking it.

  • Loki||

    Hooker slime, cop jizz, and blow. With the occasional smattering of fecal matter from the last person they choked out.

  • SugarFree||

    Cop on cop buttsex. You know it's happenin'.

  • BakedPenguin||

    A gay friend once told me that having a cop boyfriend was a big status thing in their community.

  • SugarFree||

    I imagine so, an entire sub-genre of gay mustache culture was created by cops.

  • T||

    And Tom Selleck.

  • Loki||

    "Who wants a mustache ride!?"

  • db||

    "Prease to give mustache a ride!"

  • Abdul||

    Who needs a device when you can just check the local vicinity for gnawed human bones and do a bite-mark analysis?

  • R C Dean||

    Too much work, Abdul.

    Who needs this device when you have a throwdown in your pocket?

  • Broseph of Invention||

    Is suspect naked? If yes, bath salts are probably to blame. End of analysis.

  • WWNGD?||

    What isn't attributed to bath salts these days.
    Went through red light? Bath salts, officers had to shoot.
    Jaywalking? Bath salts, officers had to shoot.

  • Brett L||

    Ah, goddamit. Now its going to be breathalyzer, DUI lawyer, and rehab ads all afternoon.

  • Loki||

    It's almost uncanny how accurate the add squirrels can be sometimes. It's like they know you.

  • Brett L||

    Rehab is for quitters.

  • Delroy||

    "..using lab-proven Raman spectroscopy.." Oh dear, I'm not sure if the Flying Spaghetti Monster will be kind to those using his holy powers.

  • Delroy||

    Oh wait, "raman", not "ramen". Oh well.

  • Joe R.||

    Yeah. It comes from Ramses, not the FSM.

  • Zombie Jimbo||

    Might be useful in the ER to test the vial that comes in with the patient.

    One should be able to design a Raman Spectrometer to do all that the manufacturer promises, but in all likelihood they'll screw it up.

  • Contrarian P||

    No, not really. Knowing the exact agent that a patient has ingested certainly helps, but much of the time the person doesn't have any of it remaining for testing by the time they hit the door. For this machine to work, you need a testable sample. If the patient is in extremis, EMS is not going to hunt around the area for powder and so forth. They'll grab the patient and go.

    This analogy to the breathalyzer in the article is bogus, because the breathalyzer detects the level of intoxication (assuming it's not misled by confounding factors as described in the article), while the TruNarc analyzes the chemical composition of a substance found. It in no way indicates whether or not an individual is using that substance or is impaired. The need to spend $20k a pop on a machine so that a policeman can analyze a suspected illegal intoxicant in the field versus sending it to a lab escapes me. The technology looks useful in a crime lab, but doesn't seem to have much of an indication for field use.

  • ||

    I think field units will give the cops the results they want. Sometimes labs are known to tell the truth.

  • TELLMOFF||

    Another cop gadjet to bamboozle the American goose steppers who are selected as jurors. The fucking pigs will be on the lookout to find even more things wrong with people. I reminisce about the good-old-days when they were satisfied with hiding behind billboards.

  • db||

    I'm glad we got something useful out of that boondoggle mission to examine that alien spacecraft.

  • Tim||

    Turns out the aliens were high.

  • Loki||

    Why else would they have come to this jerk-water backwoods planet?

  • SugarFree||

    Maybe due to a horrible flaw in their imagination we produce the best porn.

  • Loki||

    "It's cop idiot-proof. It's rugged, dependable and easy to use,"

    Other experts say it is risky to put lab technology in the hands of law-enforcement officers morons without a background in science.

    Fixed.

  • Tim||

    Coming to your paper: " Local Man Beaten Senseless with TruNarc device. Police Cite Emergency Situation".

  • Tim||

    "Suspect charged with using skull to smash $20,000 scanner."

  • SugarFree||

    "A scanner then smashed itself into the suspect."

  • ||

    I think we all know its not 100% accurate, but if they say anything else it would get challenged in court foshizzle.

  • BakedPenguin||

    So have they already programmed it to analyze 'cop car interior' as 'crack cocaine' yet?

  • RFID||

    OK, so how sensitive is this thing? As most bills have traces of cocaine on them, would this device pick that up? Is this a new cop "go to jail free" card that they can use if they don't like you...just point the thing at your wallet and off to jail with you?

  • Zeb||

    I believe that there is a minimum amount of drugs you need to possess before you can be charged. But that wouldn't stop them from arresting you if they were set on it.

  • RFID||

    That's what I was getting at, specifically the "residue" you usually hear about whenever they bust someone who doesn't have any drugs on them.

  • Christ on a Cracker||

    Yeah, any reasonable person would think that.

    You haven't been around here long, have ya'

  • ||

    (HT Groovus Maximus)

    YAY! My first Hat Tip! *swoons to fainting couch*

    I'd like to thank the little people for this honour...

  • ShagNasty||

    What did midgets have to do with this?

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