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‘No Field Test is Fail Safe’: Meet the Chemist Behind Houston’s Police Drug Kits

Decades after L.J. Scott developed a test for cocaine, his invention played a role in hundreds of wrongful convictions in Houston.

In 1973, L.J. Scott, Jr., was a chemist at the recently created Drug Enforcement Agency, hard at work on a critical breakthrough: a chemical mixture that could identify the presence of cocaine. The trafficking and use of the drug was exploding, and federal and local authorities wanted help confronting the problem. Scott and the DEA wanted something that could be used in the streets — cheap and handy, and, if possible, authoritative.

Scott’s invention became part of drug test kits that agents and officers could carry with them. Scott said he spent nine months validating his new test — first in the DEA’s lab and then with detectives in the field — before declaring success. “The method proposed herein is almost impossible to misinterpret,” he wrote in an internal memo introducing the field test, “and is highly sensitive and specific.”

Chemical field tests in the ensuing decades have served as a ubiquitous, daily tool in law enforcement’s war on drugs. Weeks after Scott declared success, arrests were being made based on the tests’ results. And in less than a decade, there were at least 12 brands of kits, which could test not only for cocaine, but also a variety of other illegal drugs. Police departments across the country purchased and used them by the thousands. In 1990, Scott left the DEA and started his own field test outfit, Scott Company. His longtime top client has been the Houston Police Department.

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