The heroin and opioid epidemic has produced crushing backlogs at state forensic labs in Maryland and Virginia, according to a review by the News4 I-Team.
A sharp spike in drug crimes and overdoses has slowed the completion of lab investigations of drug cases and triggered calls for outside contractors to be hired to help state forensic scientists.
In a grant application to the U.S. Justice Department, Maryland State Police reported an "exponential increase" in heroin and opioid crimes and overdoses. The application said the backlog of controlled substances forensic lab cases exploded from 111 cases in 2015 to 2,101 cases in May 2018.
"The backlog is expected to continue to climb to a peak of approximately 3,500 cases in early 2019, and, unless additional resources are devoted to this problem, it will take three years for the backlog to return to a manageable level," the application said.
Maryland State Police operate a forensic lab near Baltimore. The lab tests increasingly complex synthetic opioids to help police investigate drug crimes and combat traffickers.
"The amount of time it takes for them to analyze these drugs has increased significantly, and that’s contributed to the backlog," state police spokesman Greg Shipley said.
The U.S. Justice Department is expected to announce Thursday that it will award Maryland State Police a $2.5 million grant to help the agency hire private contractors to help reduce the backlog of pending cases and slow the growth of future backlogs.
"The complexity of the drugs our scientists are seeing today has changed dramatically. They’re very dangerous to the user, the police officer who encounters the drugs on the street and to the chemist who has to analyze the drug in a forensic setting," Shipley said.
Virginia state forensic specialists said they have responded to a 10 percent increase in drug cases in each of the past three years. The state said it needs an average of 134 days to complete a standard drug forensic lab review. The optimal turnaround time is approximately 30 days, according to state officials.
Virginia state officials said they too are seeking outside contractors to help reduce the caseload.