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Next generation field drug testing

New technology eliminates subjectivity and preserves evidence

Sponsored by DetectaChem

By Police1 BrandFocus Staff

Presumptive field testing for drugs of abuse sometimes creates more problems than it solves. The tests require some subjective interpretation, and the results are difficult to preserve for evidence. A new test kit line, coupled with a smartphone app, improves the situation.


DetectaChem offers state-of-the-art chemical colorimetric trace testing with its MobileDetect Pouch, but confirms the result with photographic evidence, clear drug detection results, GPS mapping and more collected and preserved with its Mobile Detect application. The officer in the field is spared the task of making a subjective determination whether the color of the test solution matches the one that indicates the suspect drug, or something else.

Test tubes and blue indicators

Old school presumptive testing is familiar to law enforcement and civilians alike since it hasn’t evolved substantially since the 1970s. You know the scene: The potential buyer shoves his wicked-looking knife into a random, plastic package of heroin or cocaine, lifts a bit of powder onto the tip, then drops it into a test tube filled with a chemical (if he’s feeling daring, he rubs a bit on his gums and smiles). He shakes the tube a bit, the chemical turns blue, and he closes the deal with the supplier. About half the time, cop cars race in and everyone is arrested, or in the other scenarios, one side or the other pulls out automatic weapons and kills everyone on the other side. Fade to black.

In real life, the test kits are more likely to be plastic or glass vials that pose an additional risk of breaking and puncturing the pouch or the officer. This could be especially hazardous when dealing with drugs like fentanyl.

The end user also still has to evaluate the results by a color change. The degree of color change can vary with the purity or variant of the drug, and the lighting conditions can skew interpretation. If the test is positive and the case goes to court, the test pouch and its contents will likely have deteriorated from months spent in an evidence locker.

MobileDetect uses custom pouches containing a test strip, well-known chemical reagents that meet NIJ standards for probable cause and a viewing window. The user doesn’t need to use a separate swab or probe to collect the sample. The test strip is removed from the pouch, rubbed on the sample or its container (the instructions give some tips on where to look for residue in or on a container), and inserted back into the pouch. Since the MobileDetect pouches can detect trace levels of drugs, officers can many times detect on the outside of corner bags or wax paper without opening the sample. An added benefit is the ability to detect trace drug residue in bags where the sample has been fully used – ideal for trash pulls. The user squeezes the pouch to break the internal seals of the test reagents and waits a moment for the reaction to take place.

There is a window on the pouch to view a color change, but instead of just evaluating the change visually, the user scans a QR code on the pouch with a smartphone camera running the MobileDetect app. The app then returns an automated result almost instantly as the app algorithms match the colorimetric reaction to a specific drug. The app will also automatically document the type of test pouch used, the specific serial number of the pouch, the GPS coordinates of the test (which can be disabled), pictures of the reaction and drug sample, the date and time and other information. Users can also add custom notes to each scan such as officer identification info or a case file number. All of these features add significant and valuable probable cause documentation for court purposes.

Preserve evidence

The app preserves the test record for evidence, along with the photo of the test result. If desired, the user can use the smartphone camera to document packaging, setting, suspect and witness photos and have these photos incorporated into the test record. The record is then preserved for later introduction into evidence in court, if needed. The output from the app is in PDF format, which is easily emailed or texted directly from the app and viewed on a variety of platforms. PDFs are also easily secured against tampering or alteration.

There are test pouches for all major drug categories as well as certain precursors and even some pre-precursors. Threshold detection is as low as about 500 nanograms, depending on the substance being tested. This is especially critical with drugs like fentanyl and its analogues, since even trace amounts can be deadly if inhaled.

Reliable samples eliminate uncertainty

DetectaChem holds a DEA license for the purchasing of standards which allows them to test and update their libraries with certified samples. The MDT (Multi-Drug Test) can detect fentanyl analogues, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA/ecstasy in a single test. There are additional pouches that detect drugs like synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones, THC, LSD, PCP, mushrooms and GHB and even gunshot residue.

Another benefit to using the MobileDetect pouches is their compact size and costs comparable to traditional field test kits. The MDT (Multi-Drug Test) is actually the best value as it covers five major drug categories in one test. The pouches are designed to be taken into the field, so they’re sturdy and not prone to leakage or drying out.

Based on feedback from law enforcement around the country, DetectaChem eliminated the need for an expiration date on the MobileDetect pouches by pre-separating the reagents so they only combine when broken for the reaction. Also, by storing the reagents in thick black plastic that eliminates light exposure, the MobileDetect pouches avoid the problems of separation and deterioration due to light exposure that renders expired traditional test kits useless and inadmissible as court evidence.

Eliminate subjectivity to build a stronger case

Eliminating the subjectivity of test interpretation and auto-documenting the procedure and result is no small thing. In the past, an officer who hadn’t conducted many field tests could find him- or herself being grilled on the witness stand by a defense attorney desperate to attack the officer’s credibility. Ambient lighting conditions are difficult to document and even harder to duplicate, and the officer was sometimes asked to discern whether they observed a teal, powder, or royal blue result in the test tube. With MobileDetect, the officer need only provide the foundation for the test and then offer the test report into evidence.

DetectaChem technology is in use by every branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, several Homeland Security agencies and many law enforcement, bomb squad, hazmat and military organizations in the U.S. and around the world.


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