In April, the Public Health Department in Island County, Washington, used a new type of scanner to search for methamphetamine contamination in buildings, trailers, used cars on a sales lot, and at a children's dance studio. They found traces of the drug just about everywhere they pointed the device.
The abuse of methamphetamine, a central nervous system stimulant also known also as crank, speed, ice or crystal, remains a major problem for law enforcement. Methamphetamine is second only to alcohol and marijuana as the drug used most frequently in some Western and Midwestern states, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. More than 50 percent of county law enforcement agencies surveyed in 2005 listed methamphetamine as the No. 1 drug problem in their area.
The device used by authorities in Island County was the ID2 Meth Scanner, a new technology capable of quickly and reliably detecting invisible trace quantities of methamphetamine as small as one microgram.
A microgram, or one millionth of a gram, is otherwise visible only under a microscope.
CDEX makes the unit, and Decatur Electronics sells it. Both companies are based in Tucson, Ariz.
Police agencies in several states have added the scanner to their anti-methamphetamine arsenal.
The battery-powered device can detect powder or crystalline forms of methamphetamine on almost any surface, including skin, clothing, plastics, wood, masonry and metals. It can also detect the drug without touching the surface, assuring that the operator does not disturb or contaminate the sample.
The unit operates using photospectroscopy, an optical technology that is able to determine the composition of a specimen by bouncing a beam of ultraviolet light off of it. The scanner is effective operating in a range from 2 to 10 inches.
A number of police jurisdictions across the country began using the device in 2008, including the California Highway Patrol; the Greenlee Sheriff's Department in Tucson, Arizona; the Las Vegas Metro Police Department; and the Fort Worth, Texas, Police Department Special Ops.
Individual scanner units cost about $5,000 each — not cheap when compared to the $15 to $45 chemical field test kits police use now. But, since the field kits can only be used once, a meth scanner might quickly pay for itself in a busy police or drug enforcement operation. It's not unusual for a drug interdiction unit to use dozens of chemical test kits a week.
The simplicity of the scanner also saves police time. Investigators now need merely to aim the scanner and pull the trigger. A laser pointer aids in scanning accuracy. The LED on the scanner face lights up when it detects methamphetamine. If the LED does not light up, the chemical is not present. Officers do not need to be trained to understand or interpret the readout; the suspect substance is either methamphetamine or it is not.
"Scanner results are available instantaneously," says Malcolm Philips, CDEX president and CEO.
The scanner's batteries last a full 8-hour shift, and can then be recharged. The device operates in a wide range of ambient temperatures, from 4 degrees below zero Fahrenheit up to 135 F, although it does not function properly on wet surfaces. Another advantage is that the scanner weighs no more than 1.5 pounds, about the size of a power drill.
In addition to law enforcement agency use, Philips sees the device being useful in schools, corrections facilities, border patrols and airports, as well as for military and homeland security applications.
The technology has already been involved in a growing number of law enforcement methamphetamine busts. One recent incident involved a traffic stop where the driver had two bags of a white substance. The Meth Scanner identified one bag as containing methamphetamine. Later analysis showed the scanner had correctly rejected the second bag, which contained a cutting agent known as MSM, or methylsulfonylmethane, a common food supplement found in grocery and nutrition stores. Drug traffickers often use the supplement to dilute the meth.