Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2004 | 11:04 a.m.
The eye is more than just the window to the soul; it can also be a window to drug abuse.
So the state Division of Parole and Probation has started a pilot program using eye-scan technology to screen people for drug use. It's a lot quicker and less cumbersome than urinalysis, authorities said.
Called "PassPoint," the screening unit looks like the apparatus used for testing the vision of driver's license applicants, but this machine is capable of identifying the presence of eight different categories of drugs, including marijuana, depressants, opiates, stimulants and inhalants, its manufacturer said.
Over the next six months, 200 people on probation will be tested twice a week by looking into the machine and observing a series of 30-second light displays that measure "nystagmus," or eye movement. Those movements correspond to the identification of specific categories of drugs.
Nystagmus is the same eye movement that an officer checks during a field sobriety test, when he shines a penlight into the eyes of a motorist.
Although the makers of PassPoint say the system has been used successfully by drug courts in Montgomery County and Jefferson County, Texas, but some of the system users in Nevada say it's not that accurate.
"I've taken the test five times and failed every time and I've never done drugs in my life," said a man who would not be identified but said he was on probation for a non-drug related offense.
After using the system twice, Jerry San received a note saying, "see probation officer."
"This is the first one of those I've gotten," said San, who noted that he was clean when he took the test. "I usually pass."
Of the nearly 21 tests conducted on the PassPoint system Tuesday, 13 passed.
"This is a probability machine," said Michael Compton, the operations supervisor for the parole and probation. "The more times you take the test the better the chance of accuracy."
Aside from worries about the accuracy of the machine there is the concern about the potential for this technology to creep into other areas of wide use like law enforcement, Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union.
"Anytime you introduce powerful new technology like this, there's always the potential for abuse," Peck said.
In the pilot program, an offender will initially undergo three eye scans and a urine sample to make sure he or she is clean.
This baseline testing establishes unique data that positively identifies the offender each time they test with no chance of faking their identity.
If a person fails the eye test, he must then give a urine sample to verify the first finding.
"We understand that it's a little intrusive on their time but they've been very good about it," Compton said. "We would hope that it will reduce the need for regular urinalysis tests on down the line."
In the two Texas counties, PassPoint caused an 85 percent to 90 percent reduction in the amount of urinalysis required and 98 percent of the follow-up urine tests of people who were determined by PassPoint to be drug users confirmed the PassPoint assessment, Nevada officials said.
A urinalysis takes about one hour while PassPoint takes 10 minutes, officials said.
Amy Wright, chief of the division, said, "We have an opportunity to save incredible amounts of staff time and money, as the system does not require an officer standing in a bathroom waiting for an offender to urinate into a cup."
The $3,500 monthly cost of the machine will likely reduce the number of urine administered each year. With more than 44,000 urine tests administered in Clark County each year at a cost of up to $6 a test, the county spends up to $264,000 a year on urine checks, said Chuck Combs, unit manager for the division.
So far the eye-scan unit is being tested only at the Las Vegas office on Bonanza Road.
The eye-scan device allows the division to test more often, Combs said. Normally the tests are done once or twice a month, but the eye scan would permit weekly testing or more often for high-risk persons. "It's saving on manpower," Combs said. The officer does not have to stand with the individual while the person fills a cup. And instead of taking urine samples from the offender in the home in some cases, the person will have to come into the office for the eye scan.
Officers, he said, will have more time for supervision. Only about 10 percent of offenders test positive for drugs, he said.
Combs said the eye scan is also more accurate. Some offenders try to dilute their system with water or other chemicals to hide their drug use. The eye-scanner will not be fooled by those techniques, he said.
Wright said that nationally more than 1 million PassPoint screenings have been performed since 2000, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars annually while increasing offender supervision and public safety.
Mike Ebright, district administrator of the division in Las Vegas said the test also makes most who fail the eye scan "fess up" that they have used drugs.