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.

Speed channel

     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.

Speed trials

     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.

     According to information provided on the Decatur Web site, the device has undergone extensive in-house tests at CDEX to validate its accuracy and efficacy as a meth detector for virtually any quantity, form or concentration of the drug. In tests conducted on evidence samples from 54 active or adjudicated court cases involving street meth, the scanner successfully identified all samples correctly.

     In other in-house tests, researchers looked at the scanner's effectiveness in detecting methamphetamine at various levels of adulteration when cut by common adulterants, including MSM, flour, salt, sugar and baking soda. The tests used pure, pharmaceutical grade methamphetamine, and all adulterants were weighed, combined in dry form, and mixed thoroughly using a mortar and pestle. The samples were prepared with 100 mg of meth. Adulterants were added to achieve concentrations from 10 to 90 percent. Each sample was then scanned twice using two different ID2 Meth Scanners. In each case, the scanners correctly detected the presence of methamphetamine.

Speed demons

     Law enforcement can use all the help it can get to combat methamphetamine abuse. Everything about the drug is unique. Unlike imported drugs like heroin and cocaine, meth is easy to produce from common household chemicals, such as hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide (lye), Vicks brand nasal inhalers and decongestants. Recipes are abundant on the Internet.

     Some ingredients, such as anhydrous ammonia, and ephedrine and pseudoephedrine decongestants, are now restricted to limit over-the-counter availability. Retailers such as Target, Wal-Mart, CVS and Winn-Dixie have installed corporate policies restricting the sale of pseudoephedrine-containing products by limiting purchase quantities and requiring a minimum age with proper identification.

     While these restrictions on the sale of precursor chemicals have been marginally successful in decreasing domestic production of methamphetamine, foreign drug traffickers have taken up the slack by quickly expanding their distribution networks. As a result, methamphetamine smuggling through the U.S.-Mexican border has increased.

     Data from the DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center show Southwest border methamphetamine seizures increased from 807 kg in 1998 to 1,223 kg in 2002.

     Border smuggling could get worse. The San Diego Union-Tribune, a daily newspaper in California, reported in July 2007 that Chinese and U.S. authorities were investigating a breakdown in port security that allowed an illegal shipment of more than 19 tons of a chemical intended for methamphetamine cartels to reach Mexico. The load slipped through the Port of Long Beach, California, undetected.

     Methamphetamine detection technologies have been in short supply. The ID2 Meth Scanner is the first handheld device available to law enforcement.

     Two other technologies — Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) and Physical Gas Sampling (PSG) — can be used to locate illegal meth labs, but both are designed more for long-range use, and are far larger and more expensive than the ID2 model.

     FTIR technology was used in Operation Desert Storm by the military to identify ambient background chemicals, as well as to characterize particular smoke or steam plumes of interest. In 1995, the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center's Western Region demonstrated the potential for FTIR to support law enforcement searching for high-volume clandestine meth labs. During the test, FTIR monitoring equipment was able to detect component meth compounds from a distance even though the plume was invisible and the detector was not located inside the plume itself.

     PSG technology can likewise be used for remote detection of the effluent by-products of methamphetamine production. North American Technical Services markets a hazmat solution in the form of 15-pound suitcase-sized air sampler that uses gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to detect traces of more than 100 chemical warfare agents, as well as toxic industrial and meth lab chemicals. The system has the ability to detect and analyze samples in the field, eliminating problems inherent in specimen collection, shipping, storage and processing unknown chemicals.

     Neither FTIR nor PSG technologies provide quite the portability and flexibility of the ID2.

Speed bumps

     The ID2 scanner has raised hopes among police that it will assist in controlling the growing methamphetamine traffic problem, but it has raised eyebrows elsewhere, particularly in some legal circles. Some legal experts believe the scanner must first be independently tested and validated before a court can legitimately admit scanner results into evidence.

     "Independent testing by outside experts likely will come the first time a prosecutor takes scanner-derived evidence into court," Philips says.

     There are other legal gray areas surrounding the scanner.

     Suppose a meth scanner used by a police officer on a routine traffic stop detects methamphetamine on a car door. Does this meet the standard of evidence being in plain view? Does use of the device constitute a search? Does its use violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure?

     "It's not entirely clear how the courts will treat the use of the scanner device," says Greggory Nojiem, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "As new search technologies come to market, the courts and Congress will have to decide how to protect that zone of privacy [that] Americans prize."

     The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police must have a search warrant before they can use a thermal-imaging device to detect the presence of marijuana growing inside a private home. Yet, in US v. Place, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a sniff by a narcotic detection dog of closed luggage was not a search because it could disclose only whether the luggage contained contraband.

     Will police likewise need a search warrant to perform a meth scan of the interior of a private vehicle during a traffic stop? Will scanning the clothing of concert-goers entering an arena be considered legitimate, or do concert goers have an expectation of privacy?

     In Illinois v. Caballes, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a dog sniff does not violate the Fourth Amendment if it occurs during the course of an otherwise valid traffic stop as long as it does not extend the duration or intrusiveness of the stop.

     "This scanner technology appears to function as the sniffer dog — it can disclose only the presence of contraband," says Lawrence Rosenthal, a law professor at the Chapman University School of Law. "Accordingly, as long as the use of this technology does not extend the duration or intrusiveness of a traffic stop, I do not believe that it would run afoul of the Fourth Amendment."

     Douglas Page writes about science, technology and medicine from Pine Mountain, Calif. He can be reached at