Police are forced to abandon field tests due to opioid danger

Mar 6, 2018

Field tests have now been largely abandoned in St. Louis, Missouri, over fears that police officers will be exposed to deadly fentanyl while handling testing samples. Previously, police officers would test for illicit drugs like cocaine, heroin, and other narcotics by placing the sample into a testing liquid at the scene of confiscation, which then changed colour according to the detected drug. These results were then used to jail suspects and file criminal charges.

Even in miniscule quantities, fentanyl can cause fatal results when absorbed through the skin or inhaled, and in order to avoid this fatal exposure, police are now sending suspected drugs to crime laboratories, which has resulted in an overburdening of the system and a delay in the proceedings of many criminal cases. In addition, for cases that go to trial, complete laboratory results can take months, which puts some suspects back on the streets for long periods.

Prosecutor Jacob Shellabarger in Audrain County, Missouri, is concerned that these delays cause more crime, as suspects are more likely to break the law while released without treatment in order to support their addictions.

According to James Shroba, the agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in St. Louis, officers were finding fentanyl in all drugs they seized, including marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine. “We instituted the precautions for self-preservation, frankly,” he said.

Even though no police deaths have been attributed to fentanyl in the USA, in the last year and a half, the DEA and state police in Oregon, Arizona, Michigan, Missouri, and several big-city departments including New York and Houston have banned field testing. Indiana state police announced in February of 2017 that law enforcement agencies should avoid field testing “unless the circumstances make it absolutely necessary.”

Paige Clarkson, who is in charge of drug prosecutions in Marion County, Oregon, believes rehabilitation is the key to resolving the opioid crisis, and thinks that the long term wait for lab results makes it more difficult to help defendants.

“If we don’t have a confirmatory test and cannot enter into a criminal-justice process, we lose our window to get those people into treatment,” Clarkson said.

As the opioid crisis worsens, police are confiscating more drugs. The Indiana state crime lab received 14,266 drug samples last year, which was 2,000 samples more than they received in 2016. Arizona state troopers stopped field testing in November 2016, and as a result, by August of 2017, their state crime laboratory was backlogged by 2,300 cases.

In response, a version of field testing has been moved to the state lab in Arizona as a preliminary testing method, which means that any suspicious material received by the lab will be subject to a preliminary colour test, just as in the field. If the test is positive but the suspect pleads not guilty, the sample will receive a full analysis. If the suspect pleads guilty, no further testing of that sample is required. This process has cut the backlog of samples in that state awaiting testing by two-thirds, with the hope that it will be eliminated by Spring of 2018.

“Our position is always officer safety is the number one priority,” Clarkson said.

The DEA has also had to adapt to the changes in field testing, and has agreed that state and local labs can perform “presumptive tests” in controlled environments when results are required immediately. In addition, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has recently begun using a hand-held device that allows officers to read contents of packaging and identify chemical compounds without having to come in contact with any dangerous substance. If the reading is inconclusive, data is sent from the device to Los Angeles, where more definitive results are provided within 24 hours.
While abandoning field testing may be inconvenient, for those involved in battling the opioid crisis, it is also seen as a necessity.