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New Plymouth Customs' new drug laser speeds up substance identification (Video)

Customs manager Megan Harvey talks about their new drug identification device.

New Plymouth's customs officers have a new toy that's helping them identify illegal pills, powders and even liquids entering the region. 

Dubbed the "First Defender" it's a laser that can identify substances in a matter of seconds, as opposed to the previously weeks or months needed to get samples back from a laboratory.  

"It gives us an immediate reading that I have sugar in front of me as opposed to meth for example," New Plymouth customs manager Megan Harvey said. 

Customs manager Megan Harvey & detective sergeant Gerard Bouterey have put the device to good use already.

"It works with a laser, the laser beam strikes the substance and can read the chemical make up of it, including any binding or filling agents. 

"It then compares this to a database of more than 11,000 chemicals and matches it to one of them, or provides a close match."

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The First Defender uses a laser to identify the chemical make-up of substances it scans - even through plastic.

It's not just drugs they're checking for, the First Defender can identify all kinds of chemicals from explosive powders to household items like sugar and flour. 

Usually unidentified substances would have to be sent to the the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) for testing before customs can make a prosecution, Harvey said they now only need to send off substances that it identifies as illegal, saving them a lot of time. 

"From a customs perspective it removes the need to handle the substance ourselves because the laser can go through the bag," she said. 

The device can quickly tell customs officers whether they're looking at meth or sugar.

The device can't find the substances for customs though they still use x-ray machines and sniffer dogs to monitor all the entry points into the region including air freight, courier and at Port Taranaki.

According to data obtained under the Official Information Act from Customs New Zealand; Port Taranaki has a low number of controlled substances being intercepted by customs staff in New Plymouth. 

The majority of the seizures at Port Taranaki between 2012 and 2016 were for prescription medicines - 35 incidents in that period - however these are not necessarily illegal but must be declared, have a prescription, be in their original container and not exceed three-month's worth of supply. 

While they did intercept a small quantity of cannabis seed in 2012, pseudoephedrine based products in 2013 and some codeine in 2014 it's a drop in the bucket compared to ports like Auckland and Wellington that see a raft of substances from opium to methamphetamine which smugglers attempt to get through the gates. 

Customs have to share their new toy with New Plymouth police though and detective sergeant Gerard Bouterey said it's already helped them in their day-to-day work. 

"For example we executed a number of search warrants last week and one of the trained operators bought it with them," he said. 

"At one place there were some pills we couldn't identify and the device told us they were prescription immediately.

"But we've had positive tests on meth with it before."

Bouterey said previously police would use a Narcotic Identification Kit (NIK) to identify suspected illegal substances, however these require a physical sample of the substance to be dropped into a solution, which then identifies the primary chemicals. 

"The advantage of the first defender is you don't have to remove any of the substance to test it," he said.

"The benefit is around charging, previously we had false positive tests from the NIK tests, they would come up with a particular chemical and we would charge on that but they can be a bit variable." 

The device was purchased with proceeds from the Criminal Proceeds Recovery Act and customs minister Nicky Wagner said last year it was a way of "using assets taken from criminals to purchase tools that will help seize more drugs and catch more criminals".





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