The Hippo


Oct 16, 2019








A sample sorter for drug testing machines. Ryan Lessard photo.

CSI: New Hampshire
A look inside the state police forensic lab

By Ryan Lessard

 The crime procedurals that saturate the network TV lineup make high-tech lab testing look fast and easy. But here in the real world, all that technology and scientific expertise costs money and takes time. In the relatively small state of New Hampshire, virtually all that analysis — for things like fingerprints, DNA, toxicology and ballistics — is done in a single lab in Concord. Already backlogged, the forensic lab is now fighting to prevent any cuts to its budget by state lawmakers.

The State Police Forensic Laboratory receives evidence from all police departments and county sheriffs in the state. They even help federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency or the Federal Bureau of Investigations when they’re working a local case.
The director of the forensic lab, Tim Pifer, said they’ve had about 46 employees in the lab since 2004, when they took over blood and urine testing that had previously been done by the Health Department and the Department of Corrections. 
Over the past decade, the lab has seen tremendous growth in its workload.
“We see about a 5-percent growth in cases each year due to population increases, due to economic trends,” Pifer said.
And more recently the increase has been attributed largely to the opiate epidemic.
Pifer said the biggest backlog his lab faces by far is the tests it needs to perform on drug samples for police and other authorities. By the end of March, the lab had a backlog of 3,409 cases. And for each case, there may be multiple samples.
The second-largest backlog by the end of March was for fingerprint and footprint analysis: 376 cases.
Even if the lab stopped receiving new cases, it would take about five months to get through the drug testing. But the cases keep coming in, especially from bigger police departments in cities like Manchester and Nashua.
“They’re up here pretty much weekly dropping off sexual assaults, drug cases, burglaries, etc.,” Pifer said.
He said the lab processes about 650 drug cases each month, on average. It completed 794 in March, and last October it processed a record 806.
Opiates taking over
Pifer said the kinds of drugs the lab analyzes has changed in recent years. Before 2012, heroin was the fourth most prevalent drug tested by the lab every year, consisting of about seven percent of cases in 2011. Then, in just three years, heroin rose to the No. 2 spot behind marijuana. It’s now 23 percent of all the cases the lab works on.
The changes don’t stop there. Pifer said, in the middle of 2014, the lab started seeing an alarming amount of fentanyl cases.
“We’re seeing a lot more fentanyl on the street and in the lab. That’s really more or less mushroomed in the past six months,” Pifer said.
Now, the lab is seeing one fentanyl case for every heroin case it receives from authorities, according to Pifer. He expects that by the end of 2015 fentanyl cases may skyrocket from relative obscurity to one of the top three drugs the lab tests, edging out popular drugs like cocaine.
Pifer speculates the synthetic opiate is a bigger money-maker for drug cartels because of how it’s made.
“When you make heroin, you need to get a source of poppy or opium,” Pifer said. “Now with fentanyl, fentanyl is pure chemicals, so you don’t need to go to Afghanistan to get the poppy plants, or some other country.”
So, Pifer said, it’s increasingly popular.
And to make things more complicated, Pifer said, field test kits used by police are sometimes ineffective at detecting fentanyl because it is more potent and therefore more diluted with adulterants.
Add to that an increase in synthetic drugs like the varieties of cannabinoids, known popularly as “spice,” and synthetic cathinones, or “bath salts,” in just the past few years and it’s safe to say the lab has its hands full.
It’s not all bad news, though. Six months ago, the lab acquired a device with a $265,000 price tag called a liquid chromatography time-of-flight mass spectrometer. It’s a boxy machine about half the size of a refrigerator that’s best thought of as a coin sorter for molecules. It tests blood and urine samples for all kinds of drugs at once.
Before the lab had this machine, it had to test for each drug individually. Lab workers still have to use 10-year-old machines to establish the relative amounts of those drugs found in the samples. Pifer hopes to get another device to replace them that would similarly deal with all the drugs in one test. That would cost another $300,000.
In addition to the greater efficiency new technology affords, the lab was able to cut down on the amount of urine testing it had to do for the Department of Corrections by giving the prison system cup kits four years ago that provide a rudimentary drug test result right on the side of the cup. That meant the lab didn’t need to test all the urine that eventually came back negative for drugs, cutting its yearly intake from 35,000 samples to about 12,000.
State budget
Michael Kane, the deputy legislative budget assistant, said the House budget called for a reduction of about $480,000 over the biennium, cutting three positions in the lab. 
The positions are listed as a fingerprint criminalist and two drug criminalists. The two areas with the greatest backlogs.
Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee has been hearing arguments from state departments including the Department of Safety. The committee chair, Sen. Jeanie Forrester of Meredith, said it’s too early to tell how the committee will decide on the proposed cuts.
“I think there’s a recognition that these positions are very important,” Forrester said.
Even if the positions don’t get cut, there has already been a reduction in overtime funds.
Pifer said the lab had been getting $125,000 each year from federal overtime funds for the past decade but that grant program recently sunsetted. The money was used to help get through the lab’s backlog of drug and fingerprint cases. 
Now, Pifer is asking the state to give the lab $50,000 annually in overtime funds that would be dedicated to the drug case backlog.
The Senate Finance Committee is expected to begin voting on its budget on May 12. It hopes to have it on the Senate floor by June 4. 
As seen in the April 30, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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