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GAO Praises CBP for Illicit Drug Field Testing at Ports of Entry

A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has taken steps to improve its field tests and lab confirmations of illicit drugs, including deploying new test equipment, building new labs, using mobile labs, and providing training.

Drug smugglers use all methods of entry – land, sea ports and airports, as well as sending goods by mail or cargo or even dropped by drone over the border. In the whole of fiscal year 2020, CBP seized 828,658 pounds of cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine, up from 808,522 pounds in fiscal year 2019. So far in fiscal year 2021, CBP has seized 347,755 pounds of these drugs, with methamphetamine and cocaine seeing the largest increases when comparing March 2021 with the same month over previous years.

CBP officers and agents encounter substances they suspect are illicit drugs at ports and along the borders. “Presumptive field tests” can help them identify these substances using various tools, such as color-changing test kits and handheld electronic testing devices. A positive field test can help establish probable cause, but field results must generally be confirmed in a lab to be used in a criminal case.

GAO’s review found that CBP’s Office of Field Operations (OFO) and U.S. Border Patrol conducted at least 90,000 presumptive field tests associated with an arrest from fiscal year 2015 through 2020. The average time for CBP to complete confirmatory testing across its labs decreased from 100 days in calendar year 2015 to 53 days in calendar year 2020, as of September 2020. This occurred while the total number of requests for confirmatory testing increased from about 4,600 in calendar year 2015 to about 5,600 in calendar year 2020, as of September 2020. 

CBP has taken initial steps to upgrade the software system used to document confirmatory test results, which should provide the agency with information on the extent to which presumptive field test results align with confirmatory test results.

The watchdog praised CBP for its work to identify, test, and deploy the necessary test equipment. For example, CBP tested multiple types of chemical screening devices to determine their performance and capabilities to detect fentanyl at low purity levels. In addition, CBP has enhanced presumptive and confirmatory field testing capabilities by building permanent onsite labs and deploying mobile labs in certain field locations. To further assist in its test and identification efforts, CBP now also provides round-the-clock access to chemists who help interpret presumptive field test results.

GAO’s report notes that CBP’s use of different types of test equipment varied between OFO and Border Patrol. Specifically, OFO used handheld electronic devices for most of its tests, while Border Patrol used color-changing test kits for most of its tests. Specifically, 53 percent of OFO’s presumptive field tests used handheld electronic devices, and 35 percent used color-changing test kits. For Border Patrol, 87 percent of tests used color-changing test kits and 6 percent used handheld electronic devices. CBP officials told GAO that they have focused their deployment of handheld electronic devices to high-risk locations—which CBP determines by assessing potential threats identified in the field, such as types of drugs encountered—and data indicate that over 85 percent of handheld electronic devices were deployed to OFO’s ports of entry, as of October 2020.

Most CBP field officials GAO spoke with said that they had a sufficient number of personnel at their facility who were trained to use this equipment, but in some cases it would be helpful to have additional officers or agents trained. In light of COVID-19, CBP headquarters officials told GAO that they have offered refresher training online for using handheld electronic devices as well as online training for using fentanyl test strips.

The positive findings come just a few weeks after the Office of Inspector General (OIG) criticized CBP for its mishandling of illicit drugs in its permanent vaults. Federal law requires CBP to destroy most seized drugs and retain samples as evidence to prosecute criminals. However, OIG found that 86 percent of illegal drugs CBP stored in its vaults were greater than allowed quantities.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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