BCA using new drug tests to speed up court trials, treatment

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is using a new drug test to speed up court trials and get criminals into jail or treatment, and it’s one of only a few labs in the country to do so.

The whole point is to clear out the back log of drug cases, and the BCA said that after using Hennepin County as a test for the new process, it’s seeing some good results.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys need these drug tests for court hearings, and this new procedure is using chemical science to speed up the process.

Inside the BCA, forensic scientist Becky Willis tests for the presence of cocaine with a new chemical experiment that pops under the microscope.

"They kind of look like snowflakes," she said. “Only cocaine provides this kind of reaction.”

Through a procedure called microcrystal testing, they can actually watch them grow into frost-like crystals.

"Microcrystal testing is a fast and efficient way to test for the presence of controlled substances," said BCA Forensic Supervisor Glenn Langenburg. “The BCA will use it to test for methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin." 

The process involves adding a chemical re-agent to a small amount of drugs to form the crystals; the shape of the crystal indicates a specific drug.

Only a test using a gas chromatographic mass spectrometer can prove the existence of a specific drug. But, microcrystal testing can establish likely presence.

And, it's cheaper and faster.

"It can take up to six months for traditional testing; this additional approach has allowed us to release results in sometimes two to four weeks," said BCA Deputy Superintendent Catherine Knutson.

The Hennepin County attorney's office says that has dramatically reduced the number of court hearings, allowing cases to close faster.

"If they can get those results and a weight earlier in the process, then they're able to resolve the case faster and get the clients into treatment, who need treatment," Langenburg said. 

This new test has come at a critical time as the BCA is expecting about 8,800 drugs cases this year - an all-time high. When they eventually staff up to use this new test on cases from outside Hennepin County, it could dramatically reduce the wait times to get testing results.