Drug Abuse

How To Cease Unlawful Opioids in Worldwide Mail—Some Sensible Concepts


Did you know that the entry of illegal opioids into the US takes place, inter alia, via the international post office? Drug traffickers have learned that the drug sometimes goes unnoticed when shipping very small packets of powdered opioids such as fentanyl.

Not only does this bring dangerous drugs to the United States, it also poses risks for the people who handle the mail. For example, if a package breaks and a postal worker inadvertently inhales some fentanyl powder, it can be very damaging.

Science to the Rescue

The good news is that scientists and technology experts are working to find easier ways to detect these drugs. While NIDA and others are addressing health issues related to opioid use, other federal government agencies have launched the Opioid Detection Challenge – – a global price competition for instruments and technologies that can be quickly tracked down illegal opioids in international post.

In Phase 1 of the Challenge, universities and technology leaders were asked for detailed ideas – and 83 ideas were received. A panel of experts selected eight finalists, who are now moving on to the next phase of the Challenge.

Here are the ideas of three of the finalists:

Use X-rays and "intelligent" algorithms: This tool uses machine learning algorithms to learn from experience (without the help of people) how to detect suspicious objects. These algorithms are applied to images taken by two x-rays scanning a package from different angles.
Detect Nitrogen: This solution uses RF pulses to find specific molecules that contain nitrogen. Opioid molecules contain nitrogen, and illegal opioids resonate at different radio frequencies – so they can be detected.
Use X-Ray Diffraction: This technology diffracts (diffuses) a broad-spectrum X-ray beam over a package to quickly identify its contents. (X-rays can detect chemicals by "seeing" how the atoms are located in a substance.) Then the diffraction patterns are compared to patterns produced by illicit drugs.

You can find all the ideas of the finalists on the website of the Opioid Detection Challenge.

What happens next?

In Phase 2 of the Challenge, the finalists develop their plans into real tools. Then they test the tools for a jury.

The winning ideas could help reduce the flow of illegal opioids through the post office – just another way science can save lives every day. When the winners are announced, we'll tell you about it!