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Ohio Pilot Taps Mass Spectrometers for Efficient Drug Tests

Ohio has announced a new pilot that involves using mass spectrometers to increase efficiency and safety around drug testing to increase officer safety, aid in investigations and help connect individuals to treatment.

Hand holding a small baggie of drugs.
A collection of Ohio agencies have come together to launch a pilot program that will use mass spectrometer technology to aid law enforcement procedures.

This is not the state’s first experience with this technology, as the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) has invested in MX908 devices to combat opioid use. Other locations, like Akron, Ohio, have also invested in mass spectrometers.

The new pilot, announced this month, involves sending a mass spectrometer to three regions in the state. The pilot — a collaboration between the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, BCI and both police and prosecuting attorneys from participating counties — will focus specifically on identifying methamphetamine, cocaine and marked pharmaceutical pills.

BCI first purchased MX908 devices in 2019 through a 2018 grant for a user study. The pilot was developed to go a step further, according to Jessica Toms, a laboratory safety coordinator for BCI.

The devices can be used to test items purchased in undercover operations, paraphernalia related to grand jury indictments and scene assessment safety, Toms stated in a video from the Attorney General’s Office.

Toms said that one of the pilot’s main goals is to address the backlog of cases the laboratory has in order to help individuals to get through the judicial process and into treatment programs more efficiently.

John Kenneweg, vice president of government at 908 Devices, explained that mass spectrometers are considered “the gold standard” for chemical analysis. They’re used in a number of fields, from health care to law enforcement.

Detection can be done even with trace levels, which can help improve safety for those that may be exposed to the material.

Essentially, the MX908 device is “a fancy scale,” Kenneweg said, that weighs atoms and molecules of a sample to determine molecular weight. Leveraging the algorithm component allows users to compare the results to known substances from a target list to identify the substance.

Kenneweg noted the device can detect most common drugs, including cocaine, ketamine, MDMA, fentanyl, methamphetamine, synthetic cannabinoids and more.

He said it’s considered a platform technology, meaning it is able to evolve with the threat landscape as new compounds enter the market. If it proves necessary, new targets can be added in software updates.

“It’s critically important, especially with the rise of synthetic drugs, that communities know what’s circulating in the community,” said Kenneweg.

Toms underlined the impact of synthetic drugs in Ohio, as emerging substances like parafluorofentanyl, which is seven times more potent than fentanyl itself, have entered the market.

“Ohio seems to be at the forefront of some of the new compounds,” she said. “I don’t know what it is, but we typically see things sooner than other states because of how they’re distributed. So that drives information to other states as well.”

The three groups deploying the devices are hosted by the Marion Police Department, the Sidney Police Department and the Circleville Police Department.

The three pilot groups were selected based on several factors, Toms explained, including the volume of cases the agency has, available personnel, the complexity of the county’s judicial system and the number of cases the county has submitted involving methamphetamine and cocaine. The extent to which counties participate in drug force activities in the area was also considered, as that would indicate existing relationships with other law enforcement agencies in their jurisdiction.

Each location will have one device and a lab space with all the materials and any personal protective equipment that they need, Toms said, as well as naloxone nasal spray to prepare for any safety issues.

The Marion Police Department’s group will be available to agencies within Marion, Delaware and Union counties. The Sidney Police Department’s group will be available to agencies within Champaign, Clark, Miami, Shelby and Logan counties. Finally, the Circleville Police Department’s group will be available to agencies within Pickaway, Ross, Fayette and Greene counties.

Toms provides support to the participating agencies in two key ways: setting up the devices and doing routine visits.

In addition, 908 Devices offers 24/7 service, so chemists are available to answer questions in real time — even in the middle of the night if necessary.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.