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New Spectrometer: Fast, Safe & Effective Drug Analysis

Until very recently, the VPD relied on Health Canada for analysis of suspected drugs and drug chemicals, and as you can imagine, this was a time-consuming process that would often take weeks to months to complete. Even the “rush” analysis, which should only take 24 hours to complete, was taking several days. Additionally, only drug samples that were evidence in criminal offences were typically accepted by this process and surprisingly, this was less than 5% of all drugs seized by VPD officers.

These drug analysis timelines were neither efficient nor safe, for investigators. The limitations meant the VPD did not have timely and accurate information about the local drug supply. And in a market where drug toxicity leads to an average of 10 tragic deaths per week in Vancouver, it’s a very important time to find a more efficient way of testing and analyzing seized drugs.

This is why the Vancouver Police Foundation, thanks to the support of two special donors, was thrilled to fund a new piece of technology for the VPD’s Organized Crime Section that will significantly speed up drug and chemical analytic results. This brand new, hand-held spectrometer is portable, efficient, and very similar to the larger units used by Health Canada. The fact that the device is hand-held means that this technology can easily be deployed in a variety of settings, including for the analysis of suspected drugs at the scene of suspicious sudden deaths or suspected overdoses, as well at the VPD Property Office to analyze all, not just some, seized drugs. What used to take several weeks, now takes 15 seconds or less thanks to the purchase of the spectrometer.

As an investigator and trainer in the VPD’s Organized Crime Section, VPD Detective Constable Tara Munro and her colleagues identified the need for the spectrometer and approached the VPF for support. She and her team primarily investigate mid- and high-level drug traffickers and clandestine labs. In fact, they investigated and executed search warrants on two large fentanyl labs in Metro Vancouver over the past two years. The chemicals, powders, and finished drug products she and her team discover and investigate are almost always in multi-kilogram quantities and have values in the millions of dollars.

“I would really like to thank the Vancouver Police Foundation for selecting us as a 2023 grant recipient, which enabled us to purchase our Rigaku Spectrometer,” said Det/Cst Munro. “We are thrilled to be able to use our device and also thrilled to know that we are keeping the public, our police, and our civilian staff safe in our city.”

The spectrometer has been put to good use in several scenarios already, increasing officer safety and greatly helping with evidence and investigations.

This past August, a man was walking his dog in a Vancouver Park when he came across a large Ziploc bag – approximately one kilogram – of a white powder substance and some small empty Ziploc baggies which are commonly used to package drugs. Not knowing what the substance was, he called 911 and VPD patrol members arrived on scene to investigate. The patrol members contacted the Organized Crime Unit, as the danger of not knowing what the powder was and how it should be handled or transported was weighing on their minds.

“Another investigator and I attended the scene with the new spectrometer and were able to safely and quickly analyze the substance through the bag, thus not having any air-borne particles or accidental spills,” explains Det/Cst Munro. “It turned out that it was caffeine, a common cutting agent for fentanyl. Our members were able to transport and tag the bag of caffeine without fear of contamination.”

Another recent example was when Det/Cst Munro and two VPD Clandestine Lab (“Clan Lab”) team members were deployed to the scene of a homicide investigation after possible liquid methamphetamine, other drugs, and suspicious chemicals were discovered.

“We brought out the spectrometer and took three samples of suspicious liquids and what appeared to be a crystalized substance on the body. The spectrometer quickly analyzed the liquids and materials and did not detect any drug evidence. It also analyzed the crystal-looking substance as polyurethane.

“By using the spectrometer, we were able to alleviate the anxiety of dealing with what could have been a HAZMAT situation, and allowed the investigators to commence their work in a timely fashion.”

The spectrometer also allows officers to analyze drugs purchased in undercover operations. This instant analysis allows the VPD to learn if there are any new substances in the local drug supply that would require an alert to Vancouver Coastal Health and safety bulletins for other officers and BC agencies.

As a reliable, analytical device, the VPD’s spectrometer is comparable to the technology used by Health Canada to conduct analysis of suspected drugs. While samples are still sent to Health Canada for official, comprehensive testing, the VPD’s spectrometer assists in “unofficially” identifying substances to determine whether VPD officers need assistance from the Provincial Clan Lab team, or whether they can safely handle the substances themselves.

The Vancouver Police Foundation supports programs and initiatives that fall under one of four pillars: Youth Programs, Mental Health & Addictions, Community Outreach & Engagement, and Technology & Special Equipment. You can help build a safer Vancouver by donating to the Vancouver Police Foundation.

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