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  • The ION Scanner is calibrated to detect 13 of the most abused illegal drugs. The screen displays the drug detected as well as the number of participle units to determine if contact with the tested material has been incidental or deliberate. This…
    The ION Scanner is calibrated to detect 13 of the most abused illegal drugs. The screen displays the drug detected as well as the number of participle units to determine if contact with the tested material has been incidental or deliberate. This scan detected a heavy concentration of methamphetamine.
Published February 11. 2011 05:00PM

What are the odds that you're currently carrying cocaine in your pocket or purse despite being a law-abiding citizen? You may be surprised to find they are astronomically in favor of the cocaine according to Pennsylvania Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Frank Jost. "Cocaine is so prevalent in society that traces of it can be found on virtually every currency bill in circulation today," according to the sergeant.

Jost was in Tamaqua recently in connection with his position with the Guard's Joint Counterdrug Task Force, which provides assistance to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies as they try to stem the flow of illegal drugs. His mission that day was to use an ION Scan machine to "sniff" out possible drugs on a cache of cash collected in a recent drug bust. The machine works at its best when used within 48 hours of such raids or drug related arrests.

The ION Scanner, a mobile spectrometer, is programmed to detect 13 different illegal drugs and determine if the tested material has been exposed to incidental or prolonged contact. It does this by searching for specific molecular travel times. Jost provided a mini chemistry lesson as he waited for the machine to warm up. "Drug molecules, actually all molecules, travel at specific speeds when heated," he explained. The machine is programmed to recognize certain molecular travel times and baseline limits are set for drugs that have clinging particles. If drug particles are found in larger than incidental units, the machine's screen turns red and displays the type of drug and the number of drug particle units found. For instance, the baseline for cocaine is set at 550 units, while the baseline for meth is 0.

The set up for the scan was meticulous. White paper was spread out over a desk in the Tamaqua squad room. Jost used a hand held machine to sniff the paper to ensure it hadn't been contaminated. Patrolman Michael Hobbs assisted Jost, which meant he had to be sniffed too. When the ION Scanner determined the paper, Jost and Hobbs were all "clean," the officer removed stacks of cash from a sealed evidence bag and spread them across the white paper. Jost then scanned each bill with a hand held unit. The response took less than a minute. The ION Scanner found large quantities of cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin particles, over and above the baselines set within the machine.

The baselines, according to Jost, are calibrated into the ION Scanner before the actual scanning process. The baselines have been established through a joint venture with several large banking institutions. The ION Scanner is taken to a large bank and "sniffs" the cash on hand, bill after bill, hundreds of thousands of bills. An average is then determined. In the case of cocaine, the baseline number of particles on a bill has been determined to be 269 units. The ION Scanner is set at the baseline of 550 units to ensure accuracy.

After all the cash in the first evidence bag was scanned, the cash was re-secured. Hobbs changed his gloves and a new white paper was spread across the desk to ensure there would be no cross contamination. Hobbs and the desk were sniffed again with the hand held machine. The scanner's screen turned bright red when Hobbs' hands were scanned. Jost explained cocaine particles had most likely transferred to Hobbs' hands when he took off the old gloves, then contaminated the new gloves. Off came the gloves. Officer Hobbs headed to the washroom to scrub his hands. A second scan was negative and the process was repeated. This stash of cash was just as hot as the first.

The hand held machine is capable of scanning a variety of materials, not just cash. Jost offered "It can scan vehicles, furniture, people - anything solid." The one Sgt. Jost was using was one of three scanners based at Fort Indiantown Gap in Annville. On that particular day, one scanner was in use in Tamaqua, one in Philadelphia and the other was in Pittsburgh. The Gap houses the Northeast Counterdrug Training Center, providing law enforcement and national security personnel with training as well as assistance. In addition to the ION scanner, the task force offers aviation and ground assets for surveillance and reconnaissance as well as drug demand reduction programs for school districts.

The positive scan results make it easier for law enforcement officers to prove their cases against drug dealers. Added to the training offered by the Northeast Counterdrug Training Center, including drug identification and proper warrant execution classes, it's a win-win for the good guys.

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