ASHLAND — When law enforcement in Ashland County confiscates a small amount of suspected narcotics, it can take weeks or even months to get results back from a lab.
By this summer, that wait time will be reduced to mere minutes.
The Ashland County prosecutor’s office has announced its intent to purchase an MX908, a hand-held device that generates laboratory quality reports that are fully admissible in court.
The machine will be purchased with funds from the Samaritan Hospital Foundation, Ashland County Community Foundation and James and Barbara Chandler, who collectively donated almost $68,000.
"Essentially, an MX908 is putting a drug (testing) laboratory in Ashland County, minus the walls," said Ashland County Prosecutor Christopher Tunnell. "Not one penny of it is coming from taxpayer dollars."
Tunnell said the department can get priority testing for large quantities of drugs through a METRICH lab in Mansfield, but smaller amounts have to be sent to a state lab.
"The problem comes when we run into the small quantity, low-level felony offenders," Tunnell said. "Those are people that usually have enough for a couple of uses in their pocket."
According to Tunnell, Ohio has only a few state labs, which process thousands of samples each year. Results often take between four weeks and three months to arrive.
In the meantime, those found in possession of the potentially illegal substances are released back into the community.
"That's not because we don't necessarily know what the drugs are. It's that we have to prove what those drugs are," Tunnell said.
“If we arrest the suspect, the clock begins to run on an evidentiary hearing at which time the State must present evidence to sustain the charge. We can’t carry that burden of proof in the absence of a lab report.”
Tunnell said local law enforcement used to do presumptive tests, but the rise in fentanyl has made it hard to get reliable results.
"The substances we see on the street are so corrupted with all the things dealers add to extend the product," he said. "In short, we don’t know what is in the bag of drugs and neither do the addicts."
The MX908 uses maximum spectrometry, which Tunnell called the "gold standard" of drug testing.
“As (the sample) goes through that spectrometer, it's going to create a certain wavelength and then the machine will take the wavelengths that are created by the device and it will match them to known standards that are pre-programmed," he explained.
Tunnell said the ability to test substances quickly may improve public safety, since most of the county's non-drug related crimes are committed by individuals actively using illegal substances.
“That’s to say nothing of concerns about the suspect’s health or the ongoing impact addiction has on their families," he added.
“This machine, on site in Ashland, used by officers from every agency countywide, would allow the immediate arrest of the suspect, the immediate end of doing what they do, the immediate entry into a controlled environment where they can receive both help and consequence.”
Tunnell said both Appleseed Mental Health Center and the Ashland County Council of Alcohol and Drug Abuse (ACCADA) have resources available for inmates inside the county jail. The agencies coordinate care with the jail's medical staff and aid inmates in a safe detox.
The jail's partner agencies also help connect inmates with treatment and recovery services both in and outside the facility.
"Yes, they get arrested. Yes, they go to the jail. But in Ashland County, that's where the resources are," Tunnell said. "For most folks, the first step through the door to treatment and recovery is through the Ashland County Jail and that is by design and on purpose."
James Chandler and representatives from the Samaritan Hospital Foundation also Ashland County Community Foundation also expressed a hope that the machine would help those with addiction change their lives for the better.
“We're just glad to partner with law enforcement to provide a tool for them to help people that are a danger to themselves and to their loved ones and families to get them off the streets, get them into treatment, so they can have a better life," said Richard Beal, president of the Samaritan Hospital Foundation.
Ashland County Commissioners must vote to accept the donations and appropriate the funds before the MX908 can be purchased. The board is set to meet and vote Thursday.
Tunnell said once the funds are appropriated, the machine can be ordered. Machines are typically shipped within 30 to 45 days.
About a year's supply of applicator swabs will be included in the purchase. The prosecutor's office will pay for the supplies afterward out of its drug seizure fund. Tunnell estimated the cost will be about $200 per year.
“We'll be able to take those monies that we're taking from the drug dealers in the drug world and put them back into this to cover that ongoing cost," he said.