Justifying the Need to Stop Field Testing Drugs

A Warning About Field Testing Drugs from the DEA

The DEA has advised law enforcement across the country against field testing drugs that you suspect contain fentanyl. The DEA also suggests that you should treat all unknown substances as if it were fentanyl. That’s because cops across the country are finding fentanyl in cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, synthetic cannabinoids (spice), synthetic cathenones (bath salts) and just about every other drug on the market. That’s great advice to avoid field testing drugs if you suspect it’s fentanyl. But, what if you don’t know 100% that fentanyl isn’t in the sample you have? Fentanyl looks like many of the drugs I listed above and an officer would not know fentanyl is in the sample until it is too late.

The DA’s and Administrators Weigh In on Field Testing Drugs

Many agencies and district attorneys require field testing drugs. The reason is straight forward in their mind: the drug needs to be tested to show a presumptive positive test so that the case can be charged and the defendant held to answer in court. That’s the way it used to be. People that live in the past and have a hard time grasping that times have changed are still holding true to the past. This inability to change with the times, though, has put many officers at risk of fentanyl exposure.
On my Facebook page, I asked officers for the problems and excuses they’ve heard from administrators about stopping the field testing of drugs. Officers in progressive departments that are concerned about their officers have already stopped field testing drugs. But, in some jurisdictions public defenders are now asking for “no time waivers” knowing that a field test wasn’t done and that the agency will have to accelerate the process of testing the drug sample in a lab.  This is the main reason agencies are continuing to field test drugs. The field testing is expected by judges and district attorneys before a case is moved forward through the judicial system.

But, the dangerous thinking of police administrators and DA’s that can’t change with the times is also held by some officers. One officer wrote, “There is not a reason to stop…just wear protective items…if an officer is so paranoid of field testing how does he/she conduct a search of anything??? Shall we just stop doing police work too??” No one is asking officers to stop doing their job. We are merely asking them to be smarter about how they do it. Protective clothing is one step and a step I have written about and taught about frequently. You should continue to do your job, but you should be doing it with the proper protective equipment and all testing should be done in a lab.

The Pipe Bomb Analogy

field testing drugs is like opening a pipe bomb to test the gun powder
How would you handle a pipe bomb on the street?

One analogy I use when teaching fentanyl safety for officers and first responders is a comparison of fentanyl with a pipe bomb. If an officer discovers a pipe bomb in the field, does the officer take the bomb apart to test the gun powder inside? No. The officer has training and experience in pipe bombs and makes an arrest and takes action based on his training and experience. The officer makes an arrest based off of probable cause and experts come in and handle the bomb evidence. Officers handle drugs way more than they handle pipe bomb calls. In my 29 years, I only had a handful of pipe bomb incidents. But, in 29 years I had thousands of incidents where I handled drugs. You wouldn’t take the pipe bomb apart because it could kill you. Now, handling drugs the way we used to can kill you just the same. Another analogy is an incident involving hazardous materials. Would you handle a Hazmat scene without protecting yourself? Do officers in the field have the equipment and training in testing hazardous materials in the field? Not many.

How to Overcome Old School Thinking

It is a struggle to get people to accept that we shouldn’t be field testing drugs anymore. It will take a meeting between all of the chiefs in your county and the Sheriff, the district attorney and the presiding judge (the judge that supervises the other judges) to meet and talk about the threat to the officers on the street. I would suggest setting up a “task force” of experts to advise this panel on the best way of dealing with the fentanyl threat.
Before your talk with the group above, it will be important to contact your crime lab, as well as other crime labs in your state, to see how many fentanyl submissions have come into the lab. It’s also important to have these criminalists come on board and talk about the types of fentanyl submissions they are encountering. I sit on a panel of experts for California POST where we are trying to advise officers on how to handle the fentanyl threat. One criminalist manager showed examples of fentanyl that looked like tar heroin (a very common form of heroin in California) that tested positive for fentanyl. there was no heroin in the sample at all. A DEA chemist talked about the carfentanil processing mills he has processed. The problem in my geographical area was much worse than I had expected.
Also talk to narcotics units in your area. As an example, a central valley drug task force called me stating they had purchased 4 kilos of fentanyl from Mexican drug cartels. They wanted to know what they should do for officers in their county to protect themselves. I asked them to look at their overdose statistics for the past few months compared to last year. Their overdoses had spiked significantly which we theorized was due to fentanyl being on the street already. I advised them on how officers could protect themselves and the steps they should take. To date, the agencies in their area encounter fentanyl frequently now in the field.

A Field Testing Alternative

Several companies have come out with portable spectrometers that can detect the presence of drugs without the officer handling drugs. These are great alternatives to old school field testing. However, these spectrometers are very expensive. One solution would be to buy one for officers that is kept in the evidence processing room (the bag and tag room) and one for narcotics detectives. Money can come from asset seizure funds.

It will not be an easy task to change your procedures. However, if you invite all of the stakeholders to the table to explain the threat and do your research ahead of time, no one can agree to put officers at risk. Times have changed and we need to change with them.
Author: Keith Graves

Keith is a retired Police Sergeant and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for 29 years. Keith was named as California’s Narcotics Officer of the Year and is a prior winner of MADD’s California Hero Award. He has years of experience as a Narcotics Detective and a Narcotics Unit Supervisor and is a Drug Recognition Expert Instructor (IACP #3292). Keith teaches both the DRE course and the Drug Abuse Recognition Course and has taught at the Police Academy. He has developed several drug courses for the California Narcotics Officers Association, California POST and California Colleges and currently consults POST on drug investigation procedures. Keith has held other assignments besides narcotics including Training Sergeant, Patrol Sergeant, COPPS Officer, Traffic Officer, and 20 years as a SWAT Team member and Sniper Team Leader. Keith has taught thousands of officers and businesses around the world about drug use, drug trends, compliance training and drug investigations. He is recognized as an international drug expert and has testified as an expert in court proceedings on drug cases, homicide cases and rape prosecutions. Keith earned a BA in Business Management from Saint Mary’s College of California and a MA in Criminal Justice. Keith is the Founder and President of Graves & Associates, a company dedicated to providing drug training to law enforcement and private industry.