Policy

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

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All your cocaine base are belong to us.

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)