Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court Tries Eye Exams as Drug-Testing Alternative

Image of a human eye showing the area of the retina that is scanned using retinal scanning technology

Lucas County Common Pleas Court is trying to reduce its costs for drug testing with the use of an ocular scanner.

Image of a human eye showing the area of the retina that is scanned using retinal scanning technology

Lucas County Common Pleas Court is trying to reduce its costs for drug testing with the use of an ocular scanner.

A northwest Ohio court is experimenting with an unconventional drug-screening method in an effort to cut thousands of dollars spent annually on tests for illegal substances.

Lucas County Common Pleas Court is conducting a pilot program for its drug court participants that uses a retinal scanner to detect prohibited substances as a way to reduce the costs of more traditional methods, such as urinalysis, saliva swabs, or sweat patches.

“In Lucas County, the overwhelming majority of people who submit to [analysis] test negative. That costs money,” said Judge Ian English, who’s in charge of the specialty docket. “We’re trying to reduce the number of people who submit to negative testing.”

The ocular scanning process is similar to a vision exam at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles or an optometrist’s office, where a person looks into goggles connected to a machine.

Each individual subject to the court’s retinal screenings must first pass a urinalysis test. Then, their eye activity is biometrically gauged to establish a sober baseline.

The drug court regimen calls for periodic testing. With the baseline set, follow-up exams can be completed within a couple minutes. Any unusual retinal activity would be flagged. Urinalysis would be repeated only for those who fail the retina test, saving time and money.

“Looking back at when we were trying to come up with our parameters, I wanted to make sure we were measuring the right things,” said Michelle Butts, the drug court program coordinator.

In Lucas County, urine tests range from $9 to $24 per sample depending on how many substances are being traced. The most common assessment is a five-panel test that checks for amphetamines, cocaine, opiates, phencyclidine (PCP), and marijuana. The costliest probes check up to 12 possible drugs.

The level and frequency of testing depends on a risk-based system that factors in a person’s history. Some individuals require two screenings a week; others, once every three months, or longer.

For those who need more monitoring – especially at the outset of the program – but who remain clean, the savings can add up quickly. Aside from the $30,000 needed to purchase a screening machine, the only other expense for the court is an $11,000 annual charge for operation by the service provider, which includes unlimited testing.

“The machine has a fixed cost, and that’s a cost the court can bear without passing it on to people,” said Judge English.

The drug and alcohol screening technology, which was created in 2003, has been used in other Ohio courts. Montgomery County Common Pleas Court, which Lucas County officials collaborated with for guidance, has one of the larger programs in the state with more than 16,000 tests annually. That program is currently suspended due to COVID-19.

The pandemic presented unanticipated problems for Lucas County’s pilot project, as well.

The coronavirus halted the operation for three months, and altered procedures when the program resumed. As part of the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department’s safety measures, a breathalyzer test that’s part of the machine’s analysis has been disabled to limit the possible spread of the disease.

The drug court team also has experienced technical concerns with the retina technology. These range from indeterminate readings caused by eye makeup to mechanical issues with the hardware.

The purpose of the pilot program, slated through the spring, is to explore affordable and accessible ways to administer drug testing in the county. If successful, the goal would be to expand testing to offenders beyond the drug court, and purchase more machines to be housed in various parts of the city to accommodate those with transportation and scheduling limitations. One example would be the sheriff’s office, which could provide 24-hour testing.

“Now that we’re forced to reduce operations [due to the pandemic], to be able to effectively test people, protect the public, and reduce costs are what many courts in our state need,” Judge English said. “We've had some growing pains, but I’m hopeful that we are able to work through those, and utilize the machine far into the future.”