An influx of people and fentanyl create more challenges for Idaho crime labs
There’s a background hum in the Idaho State Police crime lab in Meridian. It’s mainly coming from the machines lined up on tables in one of the rooms.
Matthew Gamette directs lab systems there. He says there are more people moving into the state, which usually means more drugs for them to analyze.
“There's two things that we constantly monitor. One is population, one is the crime rate, because those two factors directly relate to how many chemists I'm going to need working in the lab,” he said. “(When) population increases, we assume that there's a certain amount of the population that is using illicit substances.”
At the same time, Gamette said ISP’s labs only have the equivalent of about 11 chemists testing drug samples around the state. The last fiscal year was a busy one.
“We worked 9,848 drug cases and we worked 14,980 samples. That gives you an idea of how much 10/11 people are working. And if 9,848 cases go to court, you can see the problem,” he said.
Gamette is referring to when chemists are called to testify on their findings in court. When courtrooms open back up in Idaho, the chemists will have to spend more time testifying and less time testing drugs.
Kerry Hogan is a forensic scientist and has worked at the lab for 13 years. She says she’s also seeing an increase in the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.
“Probably two or three years ago is when it really cropped up on the East Coast and now it's finally here,” she said.
Fentanyl in the Mountain West is often disguised to look like prescription oxycodone or Percocet pills, but it’s also shown up in many other kinds of drugs. It’s also extremely powerful and difficult to dose correctly, which is why it’s driving an increase in overdose deaths across the region.
According to Idaho State Police, in all of 2019, they tested 37 fentanyl cases in their labs. In just the first half of 2021, they were up to 209.
Fentanyl is still only in about 3% of the total drug cases they deal with (up from 0.27% in 2019), but fentanyl is still deadlier than other drugs.
And Hogan says processing fentanyl can take more time than other drugs.
Chemists start at a lab bench, where they pour a solution into a little divot on a ceramic tray. Then they add drug residue and see what color it turns.
“And it goes a variety of colors based on what the substance might be. We found that methamphetamine and fentanyl both turn a bright orange color,” she said. “So it kind of changed our thought process in the laboratory. Fentanyl and a lot of the new synthetics have really altered drug chemist’s mindset in safety and precaution.”
Oftentimes, if it’s orange, they’ll need to figure out whether it’s meth, fentanyl, both, or something else.
So they’ll have to take a version of the substance over to a machine that looks like a big, gray plastic box, kind of like a fax machine. It shows a substance’s most basic ingredients.
“My most generic way to explain it is the reverse of baking. So if you put a chocolate chip cookie into our mass spectrometer every time you put a chocolate chip cookie into there, it would break apart into flour, sugar, butter, eggs and chocolate chips,” Hogan said.
Back in a conference room, lab director Gamette says they need more space with these increased challenges.
“If we can have more space, we can spread things out more. We can deal with substances more safely like fentanyl,” he said.
Governor Brad Little recommended spending $29 million for a new lab in his proposed budget, but the legislature would have to approve that expense.
Going forward, Gamette says they’ll need to make sure they have enough people to handle their increasing caseload, too.
If you’re concerned about an opioid overdose, the overdose reversal tool Naloxone is available at many Idaho pharmacies. It can also be mailed through the Idaho Harm Reduction Project or NEXT Distro.