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Synthetic Drugs and the Problem with Police Identification

There currently exist no field test protocols for synthetic drugs.

By Attorney Elisabeth K.H. Pasqualini, Drug Defense Attorney, Harrisburg, PA

A recent amendment to the PA Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act (ACT NO. 2011-7 S.B. No. 1006 HEALTH AND SAFETY--CONTROLLED SUBSTANCES--BATH SALTS AND SYNTHETIC DRUGS AN ACT Amending the act of April 14, 1972 (P.L. 233, No. 64), establishes certain synthetic drugs as illegal. These have been previously discussed in our prior blogs as "bath salts, K2, Potpourri, Spice, or Incense" and the like.

There are tests utilized by police, known as 'field tests,' to uncover the identity of a substance in the possession of the accused. Further, such tests are generally admissible at the preliminary hearing stage to provide prima facie evidence for the identity of the substance. However, 'field tests' were developed for various controlled substances, including cocaine, marijuana, and heroin. Not for synthetic drugs.

Field tests, such as the NIK and the Scott test (the cobalt thiocyanate field-test only for cocaine) are 'color tests.' Meaning a small amount of the substance is utilized in the field to determine if the test for a color, hence a substance, is identified when the suspected drug is added. The tests only confirm the existence of a substance. These tests are not a reliable basis for the final conclusion and should never be submitted to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the chemical composition of the substance. Rather, specific laboratory analysis is required for this purpose.

In 1982, a United States Army forensic chemist had this to say of color field-tests:

Field-tests were designed to assist law enforcement agencies in drug investigations. They are simple and quick procedures for testing materials suspected of containing drugs which help the agent determine if a substance requires additional analysis by forensic laboratory personnel. Field-tests were never intended to be used as a positive method of drug identification.

There exist no current field tests for the chemical compounds contained in the synthetic drugs under the Act. Therefore, any and all attempts of law enforcement to properly identify a substance at a preliminary hearing, including drug paraphernalia that contains such synthetics, should be met with objection. There is currently no reliable field test procedures for synthetics. Rather, police need to wait weeks or even months for specific laboratory analysis of the substance to be returned.

If you've been charged with possession, delivery, sale or distribution of a synthetic drug or possession of drug paraphernalia, call an experienced attorney at Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC