Prohibition Hi-Tech Tool: Just Another Anti-Marijuana Silver Bullet?

  • by Allen St. Pierre, Former NORML Executive Director August 12, 2009

    The ever-informative Technology Review previews new handheld drug detection devices by Philips that can be employed by law enforcement (or potentially one’s employer) to detect the presence of banned or illicit substances in the human body, notably cannabis.

    This is indeed bittersweet news as there are two likely policy outcomes. The first is that drivers will be subject to more and more roadside drug tests, however the secondary policy outcomes may provide some benefit for individuals and society: a) Current roadside testing is notoriously inaccurate and subject to challenge, b) Most testing today performed by law enforcement is urine or hair follicle testing (which only measures for inert metabolites from past drug use, not impairment or recent use), a roadside ‘sobriety’ test that can detect very recent cannabis use (within a few hours) narrows the window of personal liability and criminality, and c) Many law enforcement personnel will agree in debate that the social controls created by legalization and regulation is ideally preferred to the international chaos, potential harm caused to police and ineffectiveness of prohibition–but the one inch of ground few police will yield on is driving while impaired.

    Dozens of law enforcement officials, from patrol officers to heads of state police departments to state Attorneys General, have told me that they can not become converts to reform absent an accurate roadside test like they currently have for alcohol (which is an interesting and awkward way of acknowledging that current roadside drug tests police often give drivers are problematic)

    Maybe, in time, the subset of American society that most vociferously opposes ending cannabis prohibition–the law enforcement community–will come to be sated by the satisfaction that similar to alcohol-impaired drivers, they’ll be able to fairly and accurately detect cannabis-impaired drivers.

    After all, ask yourself this: When have you ever seen police or their industry associations (ie, Chiefs of Police Association, Fraternal Order of Police, etc…) publicly lobby in favor of bringing back alcohol prohibition and re-criminalizing alcohol consumption?

    Have these law enforcement trade groups funded and supported public campaigns against impaired or reckless driving? Sure, and all the power to them! But, propagandizing that the producers, sellers and  consumers of the very dangerous drug alcohol (or for that matter, pharmaceuticals)  be considered common criminals, and a threat to society?

    No. Americans will not (hopefully) ever see police and their trade groups seeking to re-vilify alcohol products.

    What will it take to get the law enforcement community to finally support cannabis law reforms?

    Our bittersweet friend…technology.

    Device Offers a Roadside Dope Test

    The system uses magnetic nanoparticles to detect traces of cocaine, heroin, cannabis, and methamphetamine.

    By Alexander Gelfand

    Later this year, Philips will introduce a handheld electronic device that uses magnetic nanoparticles to screen for five major recreational drugs.

    The device is intended for roadside use by law enforcement agencies and includes a disposable plastic cartridge and a handheld analyzer. The cartridge has two components: a sample collector for gathering saliva and a measurement chamber containing magnetic nanoparticles. The particles are coated with ligands that bind to one of five different drug groups: cocaine, heroin, cannabis, amphetamine, and methamphetamine.

    Philips began investigating the possibility of building a magnetic biodetector in 2001, two years after a team of researchers at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, DC, first used magnetic sensors similar to those employed in hard drives to sniff out certain biowarfare agents. The NRL scientists labeled biological molecules designed to bind to target agents with magnetic microbeads, and then scanned for the tagged targets optically and magnetically. The latter approach used the same giant magnetoresistant (GMR) sensors that read the bits on an iPod’s hard drive. They quickly developed a shoebox-sized prototype capable of detecting toxins, including ricin and anthrax.

    Philips initially developed both a GMR sensor and an optical one that relies on frustrated total internal reflection (FTIR)–the same phenomenon that underlies fingerprint scanners and multitouch screens. The company decided to go the FTIR route in order to exploit its expertise in building optical sensors for consumer electronics devices, says Jeroen Nieuwenhuis, technical director of Philips Handheld Immunoassays, the division responsible for commercializing the biosensor technology, which goes by the trade name Magnotech.

    Moving to an optical detection method also allowed Philips to simplify the test cartridges that the device employs, making them easier to mass-produce, says Nieuwenhuis. With the current FTIR-based system, “we can make simpler cartridges in larger quantities more easily,” he adds.

    Once the device’s sample collector has absorbed enough saliva, it automatically changes color and can then be snapped into the measurement chamber, where the saliva and nanoparticles mix. An electromagnet speeds the nanoparticles to the sensor surface, different portions of which
    have been pretreated with one of the five target-drug molecules. If traces of any of the five drugs are present in the sample, the nanoparticles will bind to them. If the sample is drug free, the nanoparticles will bind to the drug-coated sensor surface instead.

    The orientation of the magnetic field that first drew the nanoparticles to the sensor is then reversed, pulling away any nano-labeled drug molecules that may accidentally have stuck to the sensor surface but leaving legitimately bound ones in place. This last magnetic trick promises to reduce what Larry Kricka, a clinical chemist at the University of Pennsylvania who recently co-authored an article in Clinical Chemistry on the use of magnetism in point-of-care testing, calls “a major restraint in such assays”: the unintentional capture of molecular labels on the test surface, a leading cause of both false positives and false negatives. Kricka is not involved with Philips but does serve as a consultant to T2 Biosciences, a Cambridge, MA, firm that promotes a magnetic biosensor based on MRI technology.

    During the analysis phase, a beam of light is bounced off the sensor. Any nanoparticles bound to the surface will change its refractive index, thereby altering the intensity of the reflected light and indicating the concentration of drugs in the sample. By immobilizing different drug molecules on different portions on the sensor surface, the analyzer is able to identify the drug traces in question. An electronic screen displays instructions and a simple color-coded readout of the results.

    The test takes less than 90 seconds and can detect drugs at concentrations measured in parts-per-billion using a single microliter of saliva.

    The sensor is capable of even greater sensitivity–it has been used to detect cardiac troponin, a commonly used indicator of heart attack, at concentrations 1,000 times lower.

    Philips plans ultimately to enter the healthcare market. It is working on a platform capable of testing blood as well as saliva and is seeking partners that can help expand its testing menu by providing it with additional biomarkers.

    Other researchers have built experimental devices to magnetically detect a wide range of biomolecules in minuscule samples of blood or saliva at extremely low concentrations. Often this involves using microfluidic or magnetic forces to quickly shepherd the magnetically labeled molecules through scanners–though a group at the University of Utah has even built a prototype in which a sample-laden stick is swiped across a GMR sensor, like a credit-card through a reader.

    The combination of high sensitivity, low sample volumes, miniaturization, speed, and ease of use has raised hopes for a handheld biosensor that could perform sophisticated tests with high accuracy.

    “Everyone’s trying to get there,” says Kricka. “The question is who’s going to win?” With Philips set to introduce its drug tester in Europe by the end of the year in partnership with the British diagnostics firm Cozart, the consumer electronics maker appears poised to take the prize.

    Published Tuesday, August 04, 2009 @ Technology Review.

    88 responses to “Prohibition Hi-Tech Tool: Just Another Anti-Marijuana Silver Bullet?”

    1. Rob says:

      It’s just a plant… I can’t believe this is how America labels a plant that god put on this earth.

      All of you Americans are lazy good for nothing douche bags. The day it’s legalized is the day you quit letting your government decide everything for you… SOCIALISM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! but you’ll probably never meet that day because your too caught up in Jon & Kate + an 8 ball.

      Fucking losers, they wont do anything till you get pissed off angry at these buffoons.

    2. ChEcH says:

      their taking over over thorw the gov

    3. Steven says:

      If this will work (as explained) and will show when (some of our not so smart) partakers of this beautiful herb, it might just be the proverbial, straw that breaks the camels back. I personally know many police officers who are on the fence about legalization and the only reason is not being able to accurately test if a person is currently “intoxicated” drivers. No responsible activist wants to break the law, but right now the law is unfair. The only thing I worry about is the accuracy of this device. Will it only show if a driver currently has an active amount in their system? How can we be assured that this will work as intended?

    4. The Oracle says:

      Alas, I predict this is going to be just another tool for big brother at roadside check points. If someone is pulled over for a legitimate traffic offence where impairment is likely, its use would be for safer roads. Because there are no standards or settings measured for veritable impairment because of recent cannabis use, the leeway for misuse is left open. If you get stopped at a sobriety checkpoint, you could be coerced into consent. What if someone ingested cannabis but not enough to become impaired? There have to be some other kind of prongs to safeguard against further law enforcement abuses in their witchhunt against cannabis consumers. Just because this will get tested in the Netherlands and standards established does not mean the U.S. will adopt them. If you have ever watched any of officer Barry Cooper’s videos/dvds then the best thing would be simply never to consume in the vehicle or before getting behind the wheel, as well as never to have anything unnecessarily on your person.

      Most law enforcement are merely concerned with furthering their own careers, and they don’t give a rat’s ass about the truth about cannabis.

      I will NEVER forget what they did to Todd McCormick! Fucking Bastards!

    5. James M. Silva, Esq. says:

      The emergence of roadside testing technology eliminates one of the most significant arguments against meaningful law reform and is a very positive thing. Equally as important will be establishment of what detectible levels constitute “imparement”. A determination of how many parts per million rises to the level of imparement, needs to be derived from scientific observation of performance, and I’m sure will vary based upon an idividual’s physical traits. Ultimately, the development of a standard for imparement needs to be guided by emperically verifiable scientific facts, lest the fear surrounding drugs generally cause those best positioned to create a rubber stamp that no public official whose office is subject to voter approval ever dare challenge.

      Excellent inveltigative reporting, Allan! I’ll have my eye on this.

    6. L.H. says:

      I wonder how this will be used for MM people who medicate daily , if stopped by LEO. Just because you show traces of Cannabis in your system does not mean you are impaired , just as smelling alcohol on someones breath does not mean they are legally drunk. I fear that this tool will be used as a “throw net” to bust more cannabis users. If a cop wants to pull ANYONE over they can , and do, once they smell pot they can use this device to bust you . Also, seems like a violation of my 4th amendment rights.

    7. Jack Vermicelli says:

      “…but the one inch of ground few police will yield on is driving while impaired.”

      Don’tcha mean will *not*?

    8. Jack Vermicelli says:

      Crud. Disregard that last. Hurray reading comprehension.

    9. dave says:

      WOW BIG BROTHER in action.Does this device detect only if you have smoked in the last few hours or will it test and find even if you havent smoked for a few days.I for one will never submit to any roadside test, I already have to randomly be tested at my job and i hate that,but to be randomly pulled over and to have to do this is just totally a violation of one rights. I dont condone driving while high but if ive been high that night and then drive after ive come down this device would land me in jail.Whats next cameras in my car with the poilce watching me drive.This madness has to stop. I wonder if people taking opiate based prescription drugs will be arrested,think of how full our jails will be then..What a sad place this has become to live in.I found this quote by lincoln i think it really applies now more than ever>

      “Prohibition goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded” -Abraham Lincoln

    10. – If levels of active-cannabinoids in
      saliva can be accurately-correlated with
      could this be the END of
      archaic, urine-based drug-tests and
      UNSCIENTIFIC, “zero-tolerance”,”per-se” DUID laws?

      (Which unfairly-penalize a motorist for
      presence of weeks-old, inactive-metabolites,
      rather than actual indicators of present impairment…)