Newspaper headlines over the past 60 days alone say it all: Crash due to driver under influence of spice, Cops bust major synthetic drug operation , Synthetic pot sends 18 people to Lafayette hospitals . From Santa Barbara, California to Bridgeport, Connecticut and Lafayette, Louisiana, synthetic drugs are a major problem in the U.S.
Synthetic marijuana, known by names such as "spice" and "K2," and cathinones, commonly known as "bath salts," are still sold at some gas stations, "head" shops and other locations, marketed as harmless incense or air freshener. But what’s often in the flashy packaging is anything but harmless. And because the packages are labeled "not for human consumption," buyers and sellers can often evade prosecution, confidently exchanging money for a questionably legal, but terribly unsafe, high.
According to the 2013 Monitoring the Future study, a disturbing four percent of eighth graders surveyed were using synthetic marijuana. As these drugs reach younger and younger children, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has actively intervened, designating numerous synthetic drugs as Schedule 1, making them illegal to sell or possess. To combat this, drug manufacturers continually evolve to stay a step ahead, introducing new drugs, with even more potential for harm, to fill the void.
Today, however, science is helping law enforcement keep pace with perseverant drug manufacturers. The Thermo Scientific™ TruNarc™ analyzer is a handheld device designed to identify certain substances on the spot. Equally important, its onboard library is updated regularly by Thermo Scientific chemists to include new substances that manufacturers introduce to replace drugs recently classified as Schedule 1.
Synthetic drug manufacturers and users can no longer rely on lab backlogs to delay their days in court. Consider Etowah County, Alabama, where budget cuts had forced the closure of several state labs used by the county’s Drug Enforcement Unit. The backlog for test results related to drug crimes had reached three years.
After acquiring a TruNarc analyzer in the spring of 2014 , Etowah County’s Drug Enforcement Unit cut its backlog in half in just three months. "We're definitely seeing a benefit because of TruNarc," said Jimmie Harp, Etowah County’s district attorney. "We're able to take cases to the grand jury where before we didn't have a toxicology report. Now, a defendant doesn't have to wait for his day in court. It's been a godsend."
The problem with synthetic drugs is not a U.S. problem alone. The most recent Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment prepared by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime describes a 94-country market that is flooded with dangerous synthetic drugs. This is why law enforcement units as far away as South Australia are also turning to technology such as the TruNarc analyzer.
The TruNarc effectively gives police the closest thing to a mobile drug-testing laboratory that provides instantaneous results and enables investigators to proceed with the investigation with certainty," said Detective Chief Inspector John Schrader with the South Australia Police Department. The department is using six TruNarc analyzers as part of what it calls Operation Mantle, which investigates street-level drug dealing and trafficking.
The fight against synthetic drugs is being waged on a global scale, but technology is now lending a hand to law enforcement. Drug manufacturers will continue to develop new ways to evade detection and prosecution, but thanks to technology, law enforcement will never be more than a few steps – or test results – behind.