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Ohio Invests in Opioid Detection Tech for Investigators

A pair of agencies in one of the states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic has invested in handheld devices that identify dangerous substances in minutes, saving time and potentially first responders’ lives.

Shutterstock/Darwin Brandis
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 67,367 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2018, the most recent year for which complete data is available, and two-thirds of those cases involved opioids. The intervening years have seen the rise of new synthetic opioids, such as carfentanil, that are 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times moreso than fentanyl, according to the CDC. Some of these substances are dangerous just to handle, and if you’re a narcotics officer working in a corridor from the Midwest to the mid-Atlantic — from Ohio to West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C. — you’re relatively likely to come across them on the job.

To minimize the danger and time involved, a pair of Ohio state agencies is deploying handheld technology from the spectrometry company 908 Devices that can perform chemical analyses in minutes.

It’s called the MX908, and it’s the latest investment by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) and the Ohio Organized Crime Investigations Commission (OOCIC) in their efforts to get opioids off the streets. According to 908 Devices CTO Chris Brown, MX908 is the world’s only handheld mass spectrometer, a field-ready alternative to bulky lab equipment that performs chemical analyses by separating particles according to mass.

Founded in 2012 and named after a specific parameter in their spectrometers — “like the Pi of mass spectrometry,” Brown said — the Boston-based 908 Devices started selling portable mass spec devices in late 2017 with first responders in mind. He said this included not only law enforcement but also EMTs, the Department of Homeland Security, hazmat teams and anyone else handling substances so potent that a few milligrams could put them in a coma. He said powerful opioids are often heavily cut or diluted, and if someone is testing a powder that’s 99 percent sugar with a tiny bit of fentanyl, other portable field technologies won’t find the needle in the haystack.

“Given the small quantities, they needed technology that was very sensitive, so it could detect tiny traces of material. That really didn’t exist in the field in a handheld form factor for them in the past,” Brown said. “If you’re sending first responders to a scene … you don’t want the responders getting in trouble with inadvertent contact and not knowing what they’re dealing with.”

In a public statement, Ohio BCI Superintendent Joe Morbitzer called the MX908 a “breakthrough in narcotics investigations.”

“We have been able to deploy the devices statewide to assist task forces and agencies in investigations,” he said. “Not only do the devices provide instant preliminary results but, more importantly, reduces the risk of exposure to our staff.”

OOCIC Executive Director Rocky Nelson said in a public statement that the devices were an investment in both safety and efficiency.

“When just a speck of fentanyl can cause an overdose or death, equipping our task force officers with a device that can safely field test and identify deadly narcotics is a lifesaver,” he said.

According to Brown, 908 Devices has sold more than 1,000 portable mass spectrometers, mostly to state and federal agencies for field use in the U.S., but also to labs and agencies in more than two dozen countries. The company brought new executives on board in October and had its initial public offering in December.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.