Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Do Detectives Really Taste-test Drugs?

We’re all familiar with the scene right? The detectives bust through a door on a search warrant or chase a guy down in an alley and after capturing the suspect they find a bag of "suspicious white powder". Without hesitation (or gloves) the detective manhandles the bag open and plunges a pinky finger (why is it always the pinky finger?) into the substance. Then, like a ghetto sommelier they dab the powder to their tongue and identify the substance quicker than a $120,000.00 gas chromatograph mass spectrometer!

While it makes for "good television" the scenario is completely false. I’ve often wondered how that scene was ever developed in the first place. A real cop would never have suggested it to a writer or director. Maybe some addict actor simply did what came naturally when confronted with a big bag of white powder and the director loved it! Who knows? But the prevalence of these types of scenes might convince some authors that this is common and proper procedure.

In reality, detectives don’t taste suspicious powders for all the obvious reasons. First, it could be poison. I searched desperately for a YouTube scene from the movie Showtime with Eddie Murphy and Robert De Niro. If you haven’t seen it you should do so without haste. There is a scene about this topic that is simply hilarious. People, in general, don’t stick foreign substances in their mouth. You wouldn’t take a drink from some bottle left lying around a party even if you knew it was beer would you? It’s just gross. More importantly though, even if the white powder is cocaine…it’s cocaine! It’s illegal. Some drugs can affect your system for years to come (flashbacks) and even if the effects are short-term you’ve just committed a felony and your career would be over as a cop.

Real detectives use small color field tests. NIK is the most common manufacturer of these field tests. There is a different test for each different drug you might encounter. Basically, each test kit consists of a small 2" x 3" thick plastic "pouch" containing two to three glass ampules of various chemical reagents. Detectives simply place a small amount of the suspected drugs into the pouch and seal it. Then they break the glass ampules (left to right) by squeezing them with their fingers. As each ampule breaks the fluid mixes with the drug and the detective shakes the pouch for a pre-measured period of time and then breaks the second, and so on. In the end, the test is presumptively positive if certain color changes occur. For example, if it turns blue the substance is presumptive positive for cocaine. Easy-peasy. Once completed the sealed test is simply thrown away.

So when you’re writing about detectives or CSIs encountering drugs avoid making that rookie mistake of having them taste-test the substance. It makes your writing look silly and could easily get your character fired…or worse!


  1. Love your posts. You always provide such great information for crime fiction writers.

  2. Fascinating, Tom. I've always been skeptical of that screen scenario.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Being one with an inquisitive and authorly mind, I've always watched those scenes and scratched my head, wondering why the hell a cop would do that (for all the reasons you've just mentioned). Fortunately, Hollywood seems to have wised up a bit in recent days. I now see the test kits being used in scenes more often, rather than the pinky-swipe-taste-test, which is a relief.

    Now if we can just get them to stop trampling through crime scenes and destroying evidence. I see that a lot on TV and in movies, and it drives me nuts! I find myself saying, "ACK! Don't do that! "

  4. I just saw this the other night in a currently released movie! I love when the detective tells the CSI "make sure you process the murder weapon for prints"...as if...DUH. This after they have already finger-f%cked everything in the crime scene by not wearing gloves. I swear the CSIs on L&O SVU must have gotten Olivia Benson's prints at every friggin scene! WHEW! That felt good. Rant over.

  5. Great post, Tom! Your posts are always so informative! I've sent several of my crime fiction writer clients here to read them - and will continue to do so!

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I loved your vision of the addict actor just doing what came naturally. Too funny.

    In the spirit of full disclosure, with respect to people not sticking foreign substances in their mouth, I have a confession to make. My husband and I were in a market in China. We'd seen plenty of strange food items, but when a vendor had some samples of something in a tempura batter, and he offered some to me, I took it. And ate it. I didn't die, but my husband almost did.


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