Improper or illegal use of controlled substances and illicit drugs present serious problems within all communities. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug poisoning/overdose resulted in 545 deaths in Nevada in 2014. The CDC reported that prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin killed more than 28,000 people in the U.S. in 2014. That number is more than any year on record, and at least half of the opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid. Common drugs involved in prescription opioid deaths include: methadone, oxycodone, and hydrocodone.” A commonly seen synthetic opioid pain reliever, approved for treating severe pain, is fentanyl. “Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine."
According to the Nevada Substance Abuse Working Group 2015 Report:
“In 2013, 1148 deaths in Clark County were related to substance use or abuse. A majority of the individuals were between the ages of 35 to 60 years. Those who were sixty years of age or more were taking an average of eight different prescription drugs daily. The top five substances involved were oxycodone, alprazolam, hydrocodone, morphine and methadone.”
Law enforcement is in a continual fight against illegal drug manufacturing, possession, sale and use. Drug related crimes committed in our communities range from burglary, to robbery, and murder… to name just a few. Vehicle crashes, many that resulted in injury or death, occur on Nevada’s highways/roadways due to improper use of prescription medications and over-the-counter meds, and illicit drugs.
Large quantities of drug evidence are collected and submitted to forensic crime laboratories. Types range from prescription medications, illicit drugs, and others. New designer drugs emerge regularly, requiring crime laboratories to develop new analytical techniques and spend more time on analysis.
In many cases, timely analysis of substances is of critical importance in numerous ongoing investigations. Undercover detectives, drug task force officers, patrol officers, and others conduct drug buys, reverse buys, and related operations to identify and apprehend drug dealers, traffickers, illicit drug manufacturers, etc. A critical officer safety measure requires timely and accurate laboratory confirmation of the substances they purchase or otherwise acquire from those persons. Failure to correctly determine that a substance is in fact a particular drug; or that a substance is not the purported drug, but rather, a fake non-drug substance may pose a significant safety issue for the officers and causes numerous other problems with the investigations.
All of these situations add to the substantial evidence analysis backlogs in Southern Nevada, and reinforce the need for a new forensic laboratory to increase capacity in our communities.
As of February 2016, LVMPD's forensic lab apparently had a controlled substance analysis backlog of over 1,000 cases that extend one to two years or more. Unfortunately, that backlog is not solely for the completion of analysis and confirmation of a particular drug. Reportedly, much of it is for a laboratory presumptive test for drugs (not confirmatory) presumed to be suitable for arraignment, pre-trial, etc.
If a trial is scheduled for District Court or Federal Court after presumptive tests have been completed and reported, an additional analysis request is submitted to the LVMPD lab for confirmatoratory testing, causing further delays and adding to the backlogs.
Supporting our Criminal Justice System with Timely Facts
Recent news reports in various areas of the U.S. have raised concerns regarding the use of field-level presumptive tests for suspected drugs. A few laboratories have strongly promoted and supported the use of presumptive tests for drugs in lieu of some of the traditional steps in the criminal justice system processes. Much of the support appears to have been generated by the backlogs of evidence in need of analysis by forensic laboratories. Those backlogs are undoubtedly due in large part to the shortage of laboratories throughout certain regions of the U.S., and the critically low levels of personnel and equipment in the existing labs.
Management of forensic laboratories must take care to avoid the incorrect perception that presumptive tests may be scientifically sound. When such presumptive tests are used, they provide information that may or may not be correct, rather than facts supported by scientific methodology. The information should be used as an investigative tool, nothing more.
Lab Capabilities vs Facility Capacity
DNA analysis capability must be added to support our communities. Henderson is unable to expand its forensic evidence analysis capacity and capability in any of the laboratory disciplines due the small size and condition of the current laboratory building. The building was intended for use as a temporary facility in 2005, but funds have not been available to build a correct-size facility. The building has numerous electrical and other facility problems that are cost-prohibitive to repair/replace, and the building cannot be expanded to meet current and future needs, which also limits its ability to help other agencies and communities in Southern Nevada.
The Henderson Forensic Lab Toxicology Section has the unique capability to complete blood alcohol evidence analysis from DUIs in approximately 3 to 4 weeks. If blood alcohol analysis results are below .084 percent (.08 percent plus a percentage to allow for statistical measurement uncertainty) the lab screens and confirms the blood for more than 75 different drugs, including some synthetic cathinones (bath salts).
This capability helps the criminal justice system identify persons who should no longer drive the roadways, preventing accidents and saving lives; as well as quickly exonerating drivers who have been suspected and charged for driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, but who had not violated the law.
Henderson's forensic lab was the first in Nevada to develop the ability to screen for and confirm Ambien (Zolpidem) in blood, confirming its presence and quantity in the blood of a driver suspected of causing a fatal traffic collision. The lab recently became the first publicly funded forensic laboratory in Nevada to confirm the presence and quantity of Methoxetamine, a designer drug, in blood. The lab is also the first (forensic lab) in Southern Nevada, perhaps the state, to develop the capability to confirm Ultram (tramadol) in blood. Ultram can cause death when combined with alcohol, or when otherwise used improperly.
Drug analysis (controlled substances, illicit drugs, botanical materials, etc.)
The Henderson Forensic Lab handles drug evidence only one time, completing the drug screening and confirmation when it first handles the evidence. This is a critical step in the criminal justice system, as it provides facts that will not only prove what a suspected substance is... those facts will also help to exonerate innocent persons.
As mentioned above, the Henderson Forensic Lab has a “handle it once” policy. It completes drug screening and laboratory confirmatory testing when it first receives the evidence. After the lab handles the evidence one time, there is no need for additional testing regardless of whether the case goes to trial or not.
The backlog can usually be measured in weeks or a few months however, as repeated below, the capacity is limited to due the size and other limitations of the current temporary lab facility.
In some forensic laboratories, pills and many types of capsules that are received for analysis merely undergo a physical examination of the size, shape, color and markings. Those features may be compared against reference sources such as the “Drug Identification Bible” or similar printed or electronic reference source. A laboratory report is produced for what equates to only a “preliminary” or “presumptive” test.
The Henderson Forensic Laboratory does not follow that procedure, but rather, conducts confirmatory analysis using a Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer.
This is not only important from a “handle it once” policy or for industry best practices; more importantly, it is necessary for the sake of reliability and accuracy. Many illicit drugs are manufactured in a manner (disguised) to duplicate the physical size, shape, color, and markings of prescription medications, etc. The reference sources often used to examine such evidence in a criminal case are not accurate to any known degree of uncertainty.
The analysis backlog in the Henderson Forensic Laboratory can typically be measured in weeks or a few months, depending on the type of case and volume of evidence submitted. However, the capacity is limited due to the size and other limitations of the current temporary lab facility. Again, the small temporary facility prohibits expansion and increased capacity. Occasional facility problems also hamper operations.
International Forensic Laboratory Accreditation
In November 2015, the U.S. Attorney General directed Federal agencies to only use accredited forensic laboratories for evidence analysis in federal crimes by 2020.
The Henderson Forensic Laboratory received its international ISO/IEC 17025 Forensic Testing Laboratory Accreditation on October 14, 2016. The LVMPD forensic laboratory, as well as the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Forensic Laboratory in Reno, Nevada both received their international accreditation status in 2015.
Boulder City Forensic Evidence Analysis
Henderson's forensic laboratory does most of the DUI blood analysis (alcohol and other drugs), drug analysis (such as controlled substances and illicit drugs), fingerprint comparison, and footwear/tire impression analysis for Boulder City.