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 the 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.

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