It’s time to admit that the drug epidemic is completely out of control. The “war against drugs” has been endless, and the annual overdose death data over the last decade indicates that the U.S. is losing this war. Since 2014, overdose deaths in America have essentially DOUBLED from ~45,000 dead. Last year, a projected 90,000 people died of a drug overdose. Prescription opioids have been highly regulated by the federal government for years, in hopes of curbing the overall overdose numbers but the numbers are still increasing uncontrollably. The problem is largely due to the illicit drug supply distributed via black market. More specifically, the rise of “synthetic opioids”, “designer drugs”, etc. in the illegal drug market has made illicit drugs more potent and cheaper for the supplier, a dangerous combination that leads to a more accessible deadly product for the user.
Many overdoses and overdose deaths are believed to be accidental. There isn’t any data that can confirm this belief, but the increase in polysubstance/polydrug overdoses (overdoses in which multiple substances are found in the deceased person) may indicate that this belief has some logic behind it. Most street drugs are not pure. They are typically adulterated, or cut, with various substances to “stretch” the supply or make it more potent. Even before the drugs are cut, impurities are introduced in the chemical synthesis/manufacturing process. These are black market products produced in clandestine labs and often by amateur chemists that do not have the means to purify their product. There is no safety inspection of quality control protocols in the black market like there is in the pharmaceutical industry. There is a reason when you get prescription medication from your local pharmacy, you are able to trust that there are 10 milligrams of whatever drug in it, zero milligrams of random dangerous substances, and negligible amounts of impurities from the chemical synthesis process. The pharmaceutical industry has very robust protocols when it comes to quality control. The illegal drug industry, on the other hand, has no government body regulating that every “oxycontin” pill they make/sell actually contains 10 mg of oxycodone… it probably contains 17 mg of a stronger opioid – fentanyl – in place of the oxycodone… an amount that would kill someone. In other words, an illicit drug bought illegally from a non-pharmaceutical source can contain any random dose of ANYTHING in it. This is one of the most significant differences between pharmaceutical-grade drugs and illicit drugs.
Now let’s play out a scenario. Imagine it being finals week at a college campus and dealers are going around selling “Adderall” to students. If you are not familiar with why an ADD/ADHD medication like Adderall is abused, students feel it keeps them focused and able to study better. ADD/ADHD medications like Adderall and Ritalin are part of the amphetamine family of chemicals based on their chemical structures. Now imagine that the Adderall tablets being distributed around campus are actually methamphetamine (“crystal meth”) laced with a deadly dose of fentanyl. It would be best for the local police to know about this ASAP, rather than months later after a bunch of college students overdose. The quicker they get this information, the quicker they can respond to this drug threat around campus and keep the community safe.
This is the kind of situation a lot of law enforcement agencies deal with and they do not have the capability to obtain this kind of vital information in real time. Not every sheriff’s office or police department has their own drug crime lab. In the case of Florida, most law enforcement agencies send any seized drug samples to the six state-run crime labs… and since crime labs are typically underfunded/understaffed, it may take a few weeks or months for the crime lab to confirm the contents of the drug sample. Knowing the contents of the drug sample is vital for drug intelligence, because this is its drug signature – essentially the drug’s recipe. Police have no way to quickly determine the drug signature of a drug sample… the drug sample MUST go through the timely process at a crime lab because that is where the highly trained chemists/analysts can use their advanced machines to determine what is in the drug sample. The drug signature information is used to determine connections between other drug samples that have been seized by the police in the area and it can possibly help trace the drug sample back to a source or supplier.
Going back to our Adderall example, if there are 2 overdoses in a period of a week around the college campus, it would be very useful if the police knew that the 2 overdoses were due to the same exact drug that contained crystal meth and fentanyl… and that this specific drug signature matches the drug signature in the 3 other overdoses at the university across town… which also matches the drug signature of the 8 overdoses at the university on the other side of the state. Getting this information in real time would provide valuable drug intelligence that can help lead to suppliers of these counterfeit Adderall tablets and prevent another 10+ overdoses at these campuses over the next month.
Right now, police technology is not advanced enough to do any of this. They mostly rely on the crime labs to compile this kind of information, which to no fault of the crime lab, can be a very slow process. In regard to combatting the drug epidemic, police tech must evolve with the illegal drug market. The methods that were sufficient in the 1980’s and 1990’s are ineffective versus today’s era of complex illicit drugs. It’s no longer just cocaine, PCP, and other commonly encountered drugs in a drug sample… now it’s cocaine, heroin, meth, or ecstasy mixed with novel types of fentanyls, cathinones, barbiturates, and amphetamines. There are more types of fentanyl analogues than I can count, novel amphetamines cops have never seen before, and just way too many drugs to keep track of. Law enforcement can no longer rely on outdated color tests and crime labs to regain control of the drug epidemic. More needs to be done to help them get the right tools to prevent drugs from ever reaching the vulnerable people in our communities. They need to make a bigger deal about this problem because most of their local public officials are simply not aware of this problem regarding their technology.
Those right tools must provide accurate field drug testing results and rapid drug intelligence. This is what the IDEM drug testing system intends to do. Our goal is to provide tech that will allow law enforcement to directly target the regional illicit drug distributors and effectively combat the drug epidemic.