July 27, 2006 2:35 PM PDT

New UV gun takes aim at meth users

It's too bad there's no way of knowing the lifestyle choices made by the original owner of that shirt you bought at the thrift store last week.

Or is there?

A new "meth gun," in development by Maryland-based CDEX, enables police to use ultraviolet light to detect trace amounts of chemicals left by methamphetamines and other illegal drugs.

There were 12,139 total meth incidents in 2005, according to the National Clandestine Laboratory Database.

CDEX recently filed a patent application to prepare the device for use in the "Homeland Security market," according to Wade Poteet, a principal scientist working in CDEX's Tucson, Ariz.-based research lab.

meth gun
Credit: CDEX, Inc.
The "meth gun" prototype.

The methamphetamine and illicit-drug detector uses a form of spectroscopy technology, which enables it to pick up the faintest sign of drugs on any surface, Poteet said.

While the technology behind detecting drugs with an ultraviolet light is not new, Poteet said, this is the first time the technique, which is usually confined to a lab, will be used for this type of application.

Rich Roberts, spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations, said he could envision the meth gun as a helpful supplement to canine narcotics units.

"Dogs have a limited attention span. Plus, you're limited in canine units as far as the number of dogs," he said. "So having additional equipment like that would spread the capability of the department."

Because the guns make residue visible to the naked eye, Roberts said, they also could help officers more quickly and easily hone in on the residence of a dealer or a meth lab.

"The residue is going to be in all places, out front, on the doors, on the trash bags, on any common household items," he said. "It would be extremely handy to have one of those as a diagnostic tool prior to an event."

In action
Credit: CDEX, Inc.
The "meth gun" in field tests.

The device is handheld, battery-operated, and looks like a traffic radar gun, according to Poteet, who said the gadget has no official name yet. It works by transmitting ultraviolet rays across a surface, releasing what amounts to the chemical's invisible signature. The drug-detecting device then records the signature and analyzes it, Poteet said.

The multifunctional device can perform wired or wireless data uploading and downloading. It time- and date-stamps all of its tests and stores the results for later retrieval.

The gun also features a small camera for taking pictures of suspects.

"It's sort of like the Motorola Razr phone with as many functions as it has," Poteet said.

As for items purchased from secondhand stores, Poteet said the gun could possibly detect trace amounts of drugs used by a previous owner, but those amounts probably wouldn't be enough to warrant police suspicion.

"If someone is using or involved in the manufacture of meth, it's in their cuticles, their hair. They can scrub and scrub, but it's everywhere," Poteet said, "That's what the police are looking for."

The device is still in the prototype stage of development and is being field-tested on methamphetamines, but the mass-produced devices will test for cocaine, marijuana and heroin as well, according to Poteet. The price of the gun is currently about $10,000, but once in production, the price is expected to drop to about $2,000, he said.

By the time the device is ready for law-enforcement use, most likely by March 2007, it should resemble a flashlight.

"We don't want it to look like a gun and then have to point it at people," Poteet said.

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