Impact story

One click to identify cocaine

One simple click to determine whether a street sample contains cocaine. The NIR application developed by Wageningen scientists in collaboration with government institutes and other researchers makes this possible. The first step towards a scanner application that also detects other frequently used drugs.

They have been using the same instruments for years but never collaborated. Forensic investigators, police, laboratories for food safety and customs all use the Infrared or Raman scanner to rapidly determine the content of a specific substance. In 2017, they decided to collaborate to work on a new application to trace cocaine in street samples. Statistics researchers from Wageningen checked the validity of the readings.

Normally, Wageningen Food Safety Research uses NIR scanners to determine the protein content of foodstuffs or the moisture content in meat. The police and the National Forensic Institute (NFI) generally use the scanners to analyse drugs and medicines. Cocaine is the common denominator of all government labs, which is why this first prototype was set up to detect this substance as a first step in developing a multifunctional drugs scanner. Researcher Yannick Weesepoel and his colleagues programmed the scanner's signal to provide a positive or negative diagnosis.

Cheaper, faster drug detection

They encountered a variety of challenges. They had to consider the two different types of cocaine sold on the streets: one for snorting and one for smoking. Their completely different chemical compositions must still both result in a positive when scanned. Another complicating factor is the fact that cocaine is seldomly encountered in its pure form. It is almost always adulterated with additives or other pharmaceuticals such as paracetamol. Moreover, there are legal substances that have a similar effect on the scanner.

The system was tested on 76 street samples from Amsterdam, the composition of which was known. The scanner showed a robust cocaine detection, Weesepoel concluded. The statistics were subsequently improved and honed with the samples obtained weekly by the police, NFI and customs. The current prototype, which bears striking similarities to a small remote control, connects to a smartphone. It is sold for two hundred and fifty euros, which is much cheaper than the Raman scanners currently in use by law enforcement agencies, which cost fifty thousand euros each.

A multipurpose scanner

There are several ways to determine whether a sample contains cocaine. A colour test, for example. The disadvantage of this method is that a different test is needed for each individual drug type. A NIR scanner can be used for different types of drugs, XTC, for example. The researchers aim to make the five most frequently used drugs in the Netherlands scannable. To this end, they recently submitted their findings to a scientific journal.

In collaboration with researchers from Amsterdam University, WUR scientists developed a cheap scanner that reveals whether a sample contains cocaine with one simple click. A time and money saver for police, customs and other government agencies.