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The Montco DA claimed fentanyl was found in THC gummies. But lab testing couldn’t confirm it.

It is unclear whether the gummies tested in a lab were the exact same products tested using the portable device, how they were tested, and at what sensitivity level.

An airport-style ion spectrometer that tests for illegal narcotics at Vacaville State Prison in California. This is the same type of technology Montgomery County law enforcement used to test THC gummies.
An airport-style ion spectrometer that tests for illegal narcotics at Vacaville State Prison in California. This is the same type of technology Montgomery County law enforcement used to test THC gummies.Read moreRich Pedroncelli / AP

Three days after the Montgomery County District Attorney stood behind a podium and held up packages of THC gummies that he warned contained heroin and fentanyl, his office said subsequent lab tests did not confirm the presence of illicit drugs in the unregulated THC products.

Last Friday, DA Kevin Steele announced an investigation into THC gummies after two people purportedly overdosed after eating them, directing undercover detectives to purchase THC products from three Montgomery County Tobacco Hut locations and test them.

Then on Monday, Steele said in a press release that subsequent testing could not confirm whether illicit drugs were in gummies seized by law enforcement. (The wrappers of the gummies involved in the reported overdoses were not tested.) He explained that his initial warning about the gummies was based on testing done with a portable device from the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, called a Ionscan 600, on THC products from three Montgomery County Tobacco Hut locations.

The lab testing got a different result. “At this point, I don’t have any definitive answers, but what I do know is the public needs to be wary of these THC products that are produced in an unregulated industry and in varying settings,” he said in a statement.

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It is unclear whether the gummies tested in a lab were the exact same products tested using the portable device, how they were tested, and at what sensitivity level.

His office subsequently has declined to answer questions from The Inquirer to clarify what the discrepancies might mean for his investigation.

Here is what we do and don’t know about the testing so far.

What drugs is the DA talking about?

The gummies in question contain legal byproducts of hemp that are increasingly popular for recreational use. Known as delta 8 THC and HHC, they are low-potency marijuana products that are largely unregulated.

In the past, independent lab testing of delta-8 products detected hazardous metals such as lead, nickel, cooper, and chromium.

With or without contaminants, THC gummies that look like candy can be dangerous if consumed by children, authorities have warned. Last year, the number of calls to poison control centers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for children poisoned after eating THC products increased.

» READ MORE: More young kids are being poisoned by pot that looks like candy, leading to seizures and comas

In the Montgomery County case, authorities said they had found fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid driving up overdose deaths in the United States and across the Philadelphia region. It is increasingly contaminating street drugs, such as illicit pain pills, and stimulants such as cocaine and meth.

But some recent law enforcement warnings about fentanyl lurking in common consumer products have not been substantiated. Around Halloween, officials sounded warnings about so-called rainbow fentanyl, colorful fentanyl pills purportedly marketed to children, that never materialized.

Similarly, past reports about finding marijuana laced with fentanyl were largely either scaled back or never confirmed with lab tests.

Why did law enforcement test gummies?

Montgomery County authorities said they tested the gummies from local locations of the Virginia-based chain Tobacco Hut after two people who overdosed told law enforcement they had consumed THC gummies purchased in Tobacco Hut’s Blue Bell location.

What is the DA saying now?

In his press release, Steele said that the office does not have the original package of edibles consumed by those two people. He said the investigation continues.

Steele said the initial testing was done using an extremely low threshold that could allegedly identify drugs at a concentration of .01 nanogram — a 100,000,000,000th of a gram.

(Jennifer Verkouteren of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who has conducted research on machines like the Ionscan, said the lowest concentration that the machines can identify fentanyl is actually between 1 and 10 nanograms, or 1 to 10 billionth of a gram.)

But when some of the THC products were taken to the lab, they did not identify any illegal drugs “at the lab’s threshold of detection,” Steele’s statement said. He did not clarify what he meant by “threshold of detection” and did not say whether the lab’s equipment was able to test drugs at the same threshold as an Ionscan.

» READ MORE: Unregulated hemp derivative delta-8 thrives in Pa.’s thorny marijuana landscape

Still, the DA said buyers should still be wary of THC products sold in smoke shops.

“A toddler getting ahold of them and ingesting them or a teenager who eats a handful at once could be very dangerous,” Steele said Monday.

How did law enforcement originally test the gummies?

Law enforcement tested the drugs using technology, known as ion mobility spectrometry, similar to the machines used in airport security to screen luggage and determine whether to search it for narcotics or bombs. It is known for being speedy.

Staff Sgt. Sean Maguire, who serves on the Pennsylvania National Guard’s Counterdrug Joint Task Force, operated the device, called a Ionscan 600, in the Montgomery County investigation. He said that he tested 140 gummies in multiple flavors from several brands. In some cases, he tested several gummies from the same bag.

Maguire said he first swabbed any item that came into contact with the gummies to ensure he had not cross-contaminated the gummies with other substances. Then, he gently brushed swabs on the outside of the gummies and tested them. He also cut gummies in half to test their insides, he said.

It was the first time Maguire had used an Ionscan machine to test gummies, he said.

Verkouteren, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said the technology should be used to raise suspicion of the presence of illicit drugs, not confirm them. The latter is for a lab test to determine.

“You would never want to hang your hat on that,” she said. “You would want a laboratory test.”

Why did the lab return different results than the Ionscan?

With limited information from the DA’s office, it’s hard to answer.

One option is that the lab did not test for such small amounts of fentanyl. Another option is that the field test returned a false positive.

Research has shown that ion mobility spectrometers can produce false positives for fentanyl, especially when testing THC. Ion scanners made news in Pennsylvania in 2018, when family members of people incarcerated in state prisons said that they had falsely tested positive for illicit drugs on ion scanners that they had to pass to visit the prison.

» READ MORE: As New Jersey seeks harsher punishments for fentanyl possession and dealing, advocates say the new laws risk harming people with addiction

Verkouteren said potential false positives are a reason that ion scanners should be confirmed with a laboratory test.

Maguire couldn’t say whether the Ionscan had produced a false positive.

What is Tobacco Hut saying?

Lauren Wimmer, a Philadelphia based attorney who represents Tobacco Hut, said that the chain’s reputation has been tarnished.

“The irreparable damage to Tobacco Hut’s reputation as a result of the initial press release cannot be undone,” she said in a text message. “This investigation has been nothing short of reckless.”