Police in a few departments around the U.S. are testing a hand-held laser device, which boosters can immediately identify illegal drugs and could revolutionize how narcotics cases are investigated and prosecuted.

Proponents hope the device, called TruNarc, will help officers quickly discern illicit substances at a time when police are seeing a surge in new, harder-to-identify designer drugs such as the psychoactive powders known as "bath salts."

Paul Keenan, chief of police in Quincy, Mass., said his detectives have been using it for months, alongside traditional drug-testing kits.

"It's cop-proof. It's rugged, dependable and easy to use," said Keenan. He compared the potential impact of the device to breath analyzers used on suspected drunken drivers, which allow street cops to produce data routinely accepted in court.

Traditional drug kits are used by police to justify initial arrest and further investigation, but courts require laboratory testing if a case gets that far. Although judges have yet to rule on whether TruNarc data is admissible in court, Quincy is employing the device in all its narcotics cases, in hopes that judges will start accepting the results. TruNarc relies on a technology, called Raman spectroscopy, that is already used in many drug labs.

The device "will take away a lot of the gamesmanship between arrest and trial," said Keenan.

Some drug-testing experts, however, see a smaller impact, saying TruNarc results are not likely to be admitted in court. TruNarc's price of nearly $20,000 per unit also may be too steep for cash-strapped departments.

Joseph Bozenko, a clandestine-laboratory coordinator for the Drug Enforcement Administration, uses a Raman-spectroscopy device in drug labs around the world. He said the newer versions of the technology are getting "rave reviews" from his colleagues in the field, but cautioned that the issue is more complicated than just shrinking lab equipment to a portable size and using it in the street or police station.

"That technology is in no way a substitute for full routine analysis and a certified laboratory setting," said Bozenko. "I would not go to court based on a test I ran in a clandestine laboratory in the middle of a mountain crime scene."

TruNarc was developed by Thermo Fisher Scientific, based in Waltham, Mass. The Quincy police department bought three of the devices. Police in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles also have been trying the device.

Raman spectroscopy throws a small laser light at a substance. Each chemical compound scatters that light in a slightly different pattern, and the device then compares the pattern with those in its library to identify the substance.

Read more at: The Wall Street Journal

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