Bruce Houlihan

Crime Laboratories and the Opioid Crisis: Drugs, Driving, Fatalities and the Role of Forensic Science



Crime laboratories are uniquely positioned with drugs: most have analyzed controlled substances and illicit drugs for years, many provide toxicological services for medical examiners and coroners, and an increasing number provide drug analysis from blood samples in driving cases. The main mission of forensic science service providers is to serve criminal justice with scientific information about evidence. With respect to drugs, the evidence may be powders, liquids, blood, breath, tissue, and others; and may be from illicit use or prescriptions. Determining the chemical identities, weights, compositions, and concentrations are all part of laboratory services.

Two of the challenges and opportunities facing crime laboratories in the next few years are as follows.

  • The number of designer drugs and analogs is increasing, along with potency and threats to public safety.
  • Diagnosing and modeling the relationship between seized drugs, drugs influencing drivers, and drugs contributing to fatalities is essential.

Laboratories have seen a surge in the incidence of illicit fentanyl, including designer analogs. Large quantities of this lethal opioid are found in submissions, and masquerading as other opioids in pill form. Coroner and medical examiners report higher fatal overdoses from fentanyl. Fentanyl is also appearing in ante-mortem driver toxicology analyses.

The number of opioids and other psychoactive prescription medications in under-the-influence drivers is increasing. Moreover, poly-drug incidence in drivers has grown as well. Combined with the increase in fatalities and the current trends in seized drugs, all three form a paradigm changing how forensic science serves the criminal justice community: synthesizing the sale, consumption, and fatality data to assist with public safety initiatives. The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Emerging Drugs Task Force provides information and collaboration among forensic scientists. This presentation will illustrate drug evidence trends among the nation’s crime laboratories; present examples of cases seen in seized drugs, driving, and post-mortem toxicology; describe the challenges created by the opioid crisis, and discuss new national solutions addressing the epidemic.



Bruce Houlihan is the Director of the Orange County Crime Laboratory (OCCL) in southern California, a position he has held since 2010. He has worked at the OCCL for over 32 years, dedicating most of his professional career to forensic science in Orange County as well as national initiatives and organizations. His early work at the OCCL included toxicology and controlled substance analyses, as well as method development and advancements in information processing within forensic science. Mr. Houlihan authored and architected the OCCL’s Laboratory Information Management System which provides up to date information to the law enforcement community, public, prosecutors, and defense community, as well as managing efficient processing of all operations including high volume DNA and forensic alcohol casework. He moved into leadership with the OCCL in the early 1990s and has served at both the supervisor and manager levels.

Mr. Houlihan serves on the American Society of Crime Laboratory governing board, and as chair of the ASCLD Emerging Drugs Task Force which provides information and recommendations to the ASCLD membership regarding opioids, fentanyl, analogs, toxicology, and controlled substances data sharing and statistics, and other initiatives. He participates on other committees: the FBI CJIS Advisory Policy Board, Rapid DNA, legislative issues, advocacy, and others. He served as president and board member of the California Association of Crime Laboratory Directors in previous years. He is currently serving a 6-year term with the Organization of Scientific Area Committees, Quality Infrastructure Committee, a national organization with a mission to improve forensic science in the United States. He is also a member of the national FORESIGHT laboratory metrics projects, with goals to improve processes and cost efficiency throughout forensic science.

Mr. Houlihan has published papers in forensic DNA and toxicology; and has presented topics in forensic information processing, management, drug chemistry, and sexual assault case processing. Among his contributions to forensic science in Orange County include improvements to database searching of firearms cartridge cases and bullets; receipt and processing of all sexual assault kit evidence collected in Orange County; enabling an advanced driving under the influence of drugs program; implementation of automated batching and analysis of DNA and toxicology casework; instituting rapid forensic information sharing among forensic stakeholders; authoring the OSAC Lexicon online database; and other projects. He received the OSAC Distinguished Individual Service Award in 2018, and the 2018 ASCLD Member of the Year award.

Bruce is a part-time adjunct instructor in chemistry and physics, has volunteered with relief and charitable organizations, and was raised in central Japan. He lives in southern California with his wife and family.