New technology to help in roadside drug testing

On the horizon in the not-too-distant future, officers could have handheld devices to check for drug use in drivers


So you pull over the vehicle because the driver can’t decide which lane he wants to use, and he’s not drunk. His eyes look downright weird, and he’s definitely buzzed, but you’re not a DRE and there aren’t any handy. There may be some technology in the pipeline to make your life a little easier.

Two devices under development may make presumptive drug influence testing as easy as alcohol influence testing is with a preliminary breath tester. They rely on different techniques, and you won’t be seeing them by Christmas, but hey, dare to dream, okay?

The technology developed by the University of East Anglia in the UK is from a spin-off company called Intelligent Fingerprinting. It analyzes perspiration contained in a latent fingerprint for metabolites of cannabis, cocaine and opiates. A metabolite is a substance created when a drug is broken down, or metabolized, in the body. The developers believe it can be adapted to recognize other drugs, such as methamphetamine and MDMA (ecstasy).

With the Philips device above, an officer would have a suspected drug user place a test swab or strip in his mouth to collect some saliva.
With the Philips device above, an officer would have a suspected drug user place a test swab or strip in his mouth to collect some saliva.

The science behind the detection involves coating the fingerprint in a microfluidic solution of antibody-covered particles. When the antibodies combine with the drug or drug metabolites, the solution changes color. A second antibody fluoresces, making it possible to detect very low levels of drugs or metabolites. Antibodies are particles that remain dormant until they come into contact with the substances to which they are sensitive, then becoming active.

Intelligent Fingerprinting is already using the technology as an alternative to urinalysis for drug use. The company believes they can produce a handheld device within six months.

Nanoparticles and Microbeads
The other device under development will come from Philips, and uses a different technology developed by the U.S. Navy (your tax dollars at work). The Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC developed magnetic nanoparticles, called microbeads that would bind to biological warfare agents like anthrax and ricin. Then, giant magnetoresistant (GMR) sensors like the ones in a computer hard drive scan for the microbeads. Philips expanded on this research to use an optical (as opposed to a magnetic) sensor that works on an odd-sounding process called frustrated total internal reflection, or FTIR. Philips has a lot of experience making optical sensors, since they produced some of the first CD drives. Philips is calling the new biosensor technology Magnotech.

With Philips’ device, an officer would have a suspected drug user place a test swab or strip in his mouth to collect some saliva. The sample would go into a cartridge for insertion into the handheld analyzer. In less than 90 seconds, a display would show whether cocaine, cannabis, amphetamine or methamphetamine was present in the sample.

Sensitivity of the test is at the level of parts per billion, using a single microliter (one one-millionth liter) of saliva. Tests for other substances, such as cardiac enzymes present after a heart attack, have been reliable at levels 1000 times lower than those for drugs of abuse.

How much will these cost? At first, they’ll probably be prohibitively expensive for most agencies, and there will have to be field testing and the usual court challenges where the defense bar will attempt to have them labeled as voodoo. But if the science works as expected, these will be prime candidates for funding with traffic safety grants, and the street cop will have another tool for getting impaired drivers off the road.

About the author

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and criminal justice professor. He has been writing on criminal justice technology issues for virtually every U.S. police publication and commercial website since 1988. Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, and a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

He can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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