Something big is about to happen in D.C. this winter: For the first time, federal prosecutors are going to start trying criminal cases against people selling synthetic drugs.
But they readily admit, it took way too long to get to this point because police are missing a critical weapon in their arsenal.
“A field test,” Vincent Cohen said. “A reliable field test would help a lot.”
Just before he left office as the acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Cohen told the News4 I-Team that was the one thing he wished he had when it came to prosecuting synthetic drug cases.
Acting Lt. Andrew Struhar, who is in charge of the Metropolitan Police Department’s narcotics investigations, showed a typical PCP kit. Several short, clear vials about the width of a pencil are lined up side-by-side in a small plastic bag that can fit in the palm of your hand. The vials contain a small amount of pink liquid.
Struhar showed how officers tap a small amount of suspected PCP into the bag, seal it and pop the glass vials between their fingers. He then shook the bag, mixing the liquid.
“If this were PCP in here,” he explained, “it would turn blue, same as cocaine. You would be able to say presumptively the item you have was in this case PCP."
In other words, police would have sufficient evidence to arrest the suspect for drug possession.
MPD has field test kits like that for almost every type of drug, including heroin, cocaine, meth and marijuana, Struhar said.
But they don’t have them for synthetic drugs.
D.C.'s synthetic drug cases have been held up because federal prosecutors had to wait months to find out if the contents of shiny synthetic cannabinoid packets seized by police were even illegal, Cohen said.
"It would be great if someone would be able to invent or could invent a field test,” Cohen said. “That would be helpful for us so we could just move smoothly through the prosecution process like we do with cocaine or heroin cases."
But the News4 I-Team discovered other police departments have been using field tests for synthetic drugs.
Lt. Detective Patrick Glynn, who is in charge of narcotics investigations for the police department in Quincy, Massachusetts, demonstrated an electronic field test called TruNarc. He pressed a fist-size baggie of white powder seized by his team against the nosecone of the device. A laser shoots “right through the plastic,” Glynn explained. “Nothing destroyed through the testing process.”
The device’s screen quickly revealed the powder was AB-Chminaca, a drug outlawed just this year and found in synthetic cannabinoid packets.
"Even a trained officer would be guessing at that,” Glynn said. “Sending that to the lab would take months to get the result. But we have it in about 60 seconds without having to touch the substance."
ThermoScientific makes the device and is one of several companies now selling electronic test kits across the country.
"As long as you can see it and it's about the size of a half grain of rice, we can identify it," ThermoScientific’s Joe Smith said.
The device uses the same technology military and firefighters rely on to identify hazardous materials, he said.
The device costs about $21,000 but can identify hundreds of different types of illegal substances. Smith used it to test cocaine, oxycodone pills and chemicals like ammonium nitrate, which isn’t illegal, but is often used to make meth.
"It helped with a meth lab,” Glynn said. “We were able to identify nine different types of drugs that were there. We would have been there literally for a day and a half trying to wet test all of these and we were able to scan them and come up with the proper charges immediately and know that they were going forward."
But the machine isn't perfect. Smith said leaves dosed with synthetic cannabinoids typically contain only trace amounts of the drug. It’s enough to cause an overdose but not enough for the machine to identify a specific chemical name. Instead, the screen can only confirm the drug is a "Synthetic Cannabinoid."
An MPD spokesman told the I-Team, "MPD has not looked at the TruNarc device." Other police sources said their agency isn’t using an electronic device because they haven’t found a machine that can definitively tell them the drugs are on the government’s prohibited list.
In Quincy, Glynn said he was at first skeptical about the device and worried judges would throw the test results out. But two years and thousands of cases later, he said he thinks every police department ought to start investing in the machines.
"It has expedited a lot of cases, in which people plea bargained cases out, because we knew what the substance was immediately and we don't have to wait two, three, four months," he said.