New Fingerprint Test May Revolutionize Drug Testing

By Kelly Burch 09/27/17

The non-invasive test works even after a person has washed their hands.

Man holding his thumb up to a simulation of a fingerprint scanner

Researchers say they've developed a non-invasive test that is 99% accurate at detecting cocaine and other drug use by analyzing the fingerprints of users. 

The test, called paper spray mass spectrometry, analyzes molecules in people's fingerprints. Although the researchers focused on cocaine they say the technique could be used to detect a variety of drugs, including heroin.

“This is a real breakthrough in our work to bring a real time, non-invasive drug-testing method to the market that will provide a definitive result in a matter of minutes – we are already working on a 30-second method,” Dr. Melanie Bailey of Surrey University in England told The Independent

Bailey was part of a team from the university that worked with the Netherlands Forensic Institute and a private company, Intelligent Fingerprinting, to develop the test. 

The test works by detecting molecules that are excreted as a person’s body metabolizes drugs. The molecules show up in fingerprint analysis even after a person has washed his or her hands, according to the study results, which were published in the journal Clinical Chemistry

Today, drug testing usually involves bodily fluids like saliva, blood or urine. Collecting these can be invasive and the fluids themselves can be a health hazard. Because of this, the idea of fingerprint testing could be very appealing to law enforcement and others, especially since there is no way to fool the test. 

“By the nature of the test, the identity of the subject, and their drug use, is all captured within the sample itself,” Bailey said.

Catia Costa, the lead researcher on the study, told CNBC that the test could have use far beyond law enforcement. She said that the test could be used to find out what type of drug a person has overdosed on, or to make sure that patients are taking their medications properly. 

Researchers did not say whether or not the test could be used to reliably detect marijuana use, or whether it can indicate a level of impairment or just the presence of drugs in a person’s system. Both of these are important goals for law enforcement in the United States, who are still trying to find a reliable way to test drivers who are impaired from using marijuana. 

Some police have undergone special training to try to tell if someone is too high to drive, and there has even been an app developed to tell people if they’re too impaired. However, a reliable and legally admissible test for marijuana use is still elusive. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.