Hennepin is the first Minnesota county to tap into a new drug test that’s considered more reliable, cheaper and faster than other tests, helping alleviate a backlog of court cases.

County and state officials are touting the benefits of the new microcrystal drug test for heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine cases, saying Minnesota could become the first state to implement it statewide as soon as this fall.

Parts of California are the only other places in the country where the test is being used.

“It’s exactly what I think the public hopes we do — find a more efficient way to do things,” said David Brown, chief deputy county attorney, saying the new test has significantly reduced the number of court hearings canceled for want of test results.

Since it started using the new microcrystal test last year, Hennepin County’s wait time for test results has dropped from up to six months to only two weeks. A backlog of 700 Hennepin County cases at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) from early 2016 has been eliminated.

Reducing the time it takes to test the top three drugs for the state’s largest county frees up time for traditional confirmatory testing for other drugs or other counties’ criminal cases. It won’t eliminate the need for the traditional test, but it will speed up all caseloads. The BCA says it has yet to see a false positive result.

“It certainly has cut down on the delays we’ve seen,” Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty said.

Drug cases surge

Frustrated with the case backlog, Hennepin County leaders urged the BCA to find a solution. The BCA says its backlog was caused by a surging number of drug cases across Minnesota. Cases rose by 50 percent in just three years, perhaps due to a growing population and rising heroin use.

The state agency did about 4,000 drug tests statewide in 2011 and is projected to approach 8,800 drug tests this year — a new record.

“We can’t keep up,” said Catherine Knutson, deputy superintendent of forensic science services. “We needed to do something.”

Hennepin County, which has about a third of the state’s cases, approved $250,000 last year for new equipment and two BCA forensic scientists to do microcrystal testing in a two-year pilot program.

The county had requested state funding to cover $200,000 this year for two BCA scientists; instead, the Legislature approved $150,000 for the BCA as a possible offset for the county’s expense.

The County Board is “concerned about having to pay for what should be a state obligation,” said Mark Thompson, assistant county administrator of public safety.

Off to the lab

When someone is suspected of using narcotics, police officers do a field test and send it to the BCA for confirmatory testing. Methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin make up 70 percent of all submissions. But the backlog meant it took months to get results.

Microcrystal drug tests are faster, with scientists able to do eight to 10 cases in the time it takes to do one traditional confirmatory test. That saves the county money because it means fewer court hearings are canceled because test results aren’t ready.

In a St. Paul lab, forensic scientists in white lab coats look under a microscope at the crystal that each narcotic forms — an X shape for cocaine, a starlike shape for heroin, and triangles, needles and blades signaling methamphetamine.

Other Minnesota counties are hesitant to try something new, but BCA officials say they’re hearing of interest from other counties that have seen Hennepin’s success.

“The data speaks for itself,” Knutson said. “This will become the new standard.”