Tool safely detects fentanyl; can police afford it?

Members of the Statewide Narcotics Task Force test a sample for the presence of fentanyl as they execute a search warrant at 114 South Road in Groton on May 23, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Members of the Statewide Narcotics Task Force test a sample for the presence of fentanyl as they execute a search warrant at 114 South Road in Groton on May 23, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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In a recently published study, federal researchers found they could use existing technology to detect minute amounts of fentanyl mixed in with heroin and other materials — without ever opening the bags containing the substances.

The development is significant in a time when increasingly potent forms of fentanyl keep appearing in street drugs — take the elephant tranquilizer carfentanil, for example — and officers in New Jersey, Hartford, Waterford and elsewhere have suffered ill effects from coming into contact with them.

The problem? The technology, called Ion Mobility Spectrometry, or IMS for short, would run a department wanting to purchase it about $35,000, maintenance not included. 

Researchers with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, understand the challenge. They set out to perform their three or so months of experiments, study co-author Jennifer Verkouteren said, simply to show departments what the technology is capable of.

The IMS, a portable system already used in airports and some state police forces, works by heating up a sample until it turns to gas. At that point, the substance’s molecules take a certain amount of time to drift down the device’s tube and hit a detector within.

In a minuscule amount of time after the molecules hit the detector, the IMS, connected to a large and ever-changing database, often can determine what the substance is.

The whole process takes about 10 seconds.

In their study, NIST researchers handled tablets containing substances they knew IMS should be able to detect. They then put the tablets in a bag, sealed it and collected a sample from the outside of the bag.

The idea was to replicate the way many if not most dealers package their products.

They found the IMS could detect fentanyl even when it made up only 0.2 percent of the overall substance. In most cases, it also could pinpoint which of 16 known fentanyl analogs — each analog has a slightly different chemical makeup — was within.

“It’s important because the analogs have different potencies,” Verkouteren explained.

Carfentanil, being designed for elephants, is of course more potent than fentanyl, which already is 50 times stronger than heroin. Acrylfentanyl, an opioid analgesic many are describing as “naloxone-resistant,” might be even stronger.

If officers know what’s in a substance, Verkouteren reasoned, they’ll know to be cautious with it. If they knew a person likely would need several doses of naloxone, they may be moved to administer more doses sooner rather than later.

Verkouteren said it hasn’t yet been determined how the IMS instrument would alert officers about a fentanyl analog’s potency. The instrument might turn up each analog’s specific name. Or perhaps it will show how potent the analog is on some type of scale. That, she said, is up to the manufacturer.

The IMS tool is limited to fentanyl analogs that have been identified and entered into the system. If a new analog were to pop up, the IMS result would be inconclusive. And that’s not unlikely: Illicit drug makers regularly create new forms of fentanyl because authorities have to identify and individually ban each one, NIST researchers said. If more police were using IMS, however, it’s possible new analogs could be identified and handled faster.

Verkouteren said IMS also is more accurate than the field test packets many agencies currently use, which show purple for heroin and orange for fentanyl. The kits, she said, almost never turn orange because the heroin in the sample outweighs the fentanyl. They also require officers to handle the material — they have to remove it from its original container and place it in the test kit.

“This is the big problem: The cost compared to those color metric field tests that are a couple dollars,” she said. “This is the decision they have to make. Is it worth it now, given that they can do (the tests) safely and detect these very complex samples?”

Louis J. Fusaro Jr., chief of the Groton Town police force, said the idea of purchasing an IMS system has come up in his department in the past. Courts like it when officers can produce field tests that show there was probable cause for a person's arrest, he explained. The more safely officers can procure said tests, the better.

But the reality at this point, he said, is that his officers will have less money to work with in the coming fiscal year than in the current one.

“Our budget can’t sustain that, and many other communities’ budgets can’t, either,” he said. “It’s a difficult thing because we want to protect our officers.”

Fusaro said he and others have asked state legislators and federal representatives to lobby for a federal funding program that would help municipal departments get technology like IMS. He has yet to see such a program materialize.

Fusaro said he also might consider working to purchase a shared IMS instrument for the Regional Community Enhancement Task Force, a group Groton Town police helped spearhead. Members of that force, he said, deal with these kinds of substances more than anyone else in the area.

But even if every member department chipped in and the IMS could be bought, he hypothesized, what would happen if it was needed in two places at once?

“I hope we can get this technology in the hands of our officers sooner rather than later before someone gets hurt,” Fusaro said.


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