A Central Florida company has been awarded a $225,000 grant to develop technology to take the human factor out of the field tests law-enforcement officers use to identify illegal drugs and make arrests.
IDEM LLC, a client of the UCF Business Incubation Program, received the grant from the National Science Foundation.
“What we’re doing is we’re trying to develop a more technologically advanced drug testing system for law enforcement,” said David Nash, IDEM’s CEO.
The technology works like this: a sample of a suspected illegal substance, like heroin or cocaine, is placed on a device that looks like a highlighter pen and contains chemicals that interact with drugs.
The pen is placed into a handheld device called a florescent spectrometer. The spectrometer uses a black light to make the substance glow different colors, which a user can view through a smartphone app.
The prototype is in its early stages, Nash said. But his company has collaborated with different agencies and drug labs to test it out on illegal substances.
“We’ve tested a lot of common drugs and we’ve seen a lot of promising results,” Nash said. “… There’s a lot of promise in detecting a wide range of controlled substances.”
Richard Blair, a UCF research professor who invented the technology when he was in grad school at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the concept came from “some kids in Southern California going to raves.”
Blair had a friend who was a forensic scientist for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The agency received a substance that tested positive for methamphetamine. While re-testing the sample, Blair and his friend discovered a chemical indicator that glowed a specific color when mixed with the substance – which turned out to be the party drug BZP, not meth.
Currently, many law-enforcement agencies test suspected drugs using a plastic bag that has a capsule with a reactive material. Officers are supposed to place suspected narcotics in the bag and break the capsule. The chemicals should react with the drug and produce a color that indicates the substance is a presumptive match for an illegal substance.
The issue with those tests, Nash said, is they rely on human judgement, as well as an individual officer’s senses and interpretation. The color inside the bag may look different at night. It make take a while for the color to show up – or the officer running the test may be color blind.
Nash said he’s also heard of officers who have been injured by the glass capsule breaking through the pouch, or the corrosive chemical coming in contact with the officer’s skin.
In Florida, the presumptive test is only used for probable cause to initiate an arrest. Suspected drugs that are seized by law enforcement are sent to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab for further testing.
But the presumptive tests can still alter lives.
In 2015, Daniel Rushing, a retired city of Orlando employee, was arrested after a police officer discovered a rock-like substance on his floor during a traffic stop.
Presumptive tests indicated the substance was meth. Rushing said it was glaze from a Krispy Kreme doughnut. But he was taken to jail, where he stayed for 10 hours before posting $2,500 bond.
FDLE tests later cleared him.
In 2017, Oviedo man Karlos Cashe spent 90 days in jail after white powder found on his floorboard tested positive for cocaine. Further tests revealed the powder was drywall.
Cashe was released from jail. Rushing settled with the city of Orlando for $37,500.
But Blair said dropped charges or a settlement would mean little to somebody who’s had a mugshot publicized, paid for an attorney and might have lost a job because of an improper drug arrest.
“We want law enforcement to have a non-ambiguous tool,” Blair said. “We want the tool to say, ‘This is what it is,’ and have it backed up with science.”
The prototype currently tests for many common street drugs, including cocaine, heroin, meth, PCP, MDMA and fentanyl. It doesn’t test for cannabis; Blair said the company is working on cannabis tests but it’s not a priority.
“We’re trying to address the fentanyl and opiate problem – that’s our first priority,” Blair said.
Eventually, Nash said he hopes to use cloud technology to collect data from samples, in order to create a software that tracks drugs.
For example, if law enforcement discovers a bad batch of heroin is causing overdoses, they could input the substance into a system. The more substances that are logged, the larger the database of information. Eventually, the database would develop patterns using artificial intelligence that can compare samples to other substances that have been seized, helping police trace illegal drugs back to a supplier.
The company is currently looking for law-enforcement agencies willing to do beta testing of its device. It has already been in touch with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office.
In a statement, SCSO Chief Dan Purcell said he provided IDEM with an opportunity to speak with the City-County Investigative Bureau, a multi-agency task force that conducts drug investigations.
Purcell said the Sheriff’s Office is “open to evaluating their product to improve how we identify dangerous drugs in support of public safety and our mission.”
Nash said he just hopes to give law-enforcement officers the tools they need to safely – and accurately – test illegal substances.