Investigators now use a high-tech laser device to ID illegal drugs during busts

Brown County Drug Task Force investigators demonstrate their new TruNarc device on a bag of...
Brown County Drug Task Force investigators demonstrate their new TruNarc device on a bag of MDMA (Ecstasy) seized in a recent bust.(WBAY)
Published: Dec. 28, 2020 at 6:15 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 29, 2020 at 6:00 PM CST
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BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - The Brown County Drug Task Force is now among a select group of law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin using a new high-tech machine to identify illegal substances they find during drug busts.

In the drug-dealing business, truth doesn’t always come easily.

“Even the dealers on the street saying, ‘I’m selling heroin, or I’m selling fentanyl, but actually they’re selling morphine, or they’re selling tramadol or they don’t even know what they have,” explains Lt. Kevin Kinnard, director of the Brown County Drug Task Force.

When investigators execute a drug bust, they have to figure out what baggies of pills and powders actually contain.

For decades, they used what’s called wet chemistry. They put a small part of the substance in a vial, shake it, and match its changed color to a key indicating different drugs.

They can and will still do that, but there’s a faster, easier and safer way available now, too.

“It’s basically a handheld spectrometry device that uses a laser to test controlled substances,” says Kinnard.

It’s called TruNarc, a laser held next to a bag of drugs, searches its library of hundreds of substances and within seconds, tells investigators what’s inside.

“It has 500 known controlled substances that are the most common drugs of abuse,” says Kinnard. “The other option we have is if we test something and it says ‘unknown’, we can email that test result to the company and the company can test that against a very large database of known substances that they have and tell us, based on this, it’s this or it’s that.”

Using TruNarc means no more taking the drugs out of bags and creating potential exposure to dangerous, or even lethal, chemicals.

“We’re concerned about accidental overdoses when we’re processing, for instance, opioids and synthetic opioids,” says Kinnard. “It is an extra safety precaution for us.”

It also cuts down on the amount of evidence sent to an already bogged-down crime lab.

In packaging houses, for instance, investigators can use it to determine what’s illegal and what’s added filler.

“We can say okay, that’s baby milk. That’s MDMA. That’s cocaine. Then we know, okay, we’re not going to take that. We’ll just leave it,” says Kinnard.

Because it uses a laser, Kinnard says the device can’t be used on very dark-colored substances or anything organic, like marijuana.

A grant paid the $32,000 for the device and training, and in just the month-plus they’ve had it, it’s in demand.

Kinnard even received a request to use it in the short time it took us to interview him for this story.

“(It’s) been court approved and works as a field test. We still have to send the drugs to the Wisconsin Crime lab for official testing that courts then use for their case, but this allows us, for charging purposes, to use this test for a criminal complaint,” explains Kinnard.

He says a handful of other agencies in Wisconsin also recently started using TruNarc devices.

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