For years, Washington’s public officials, like coroners and prosecutors, have bemoaned the delays in the state’s toxicology testing system.
When police stop a drunk driver, when a person dies suspiciously, or when drugs are involved in a sexual assault, the blood evidence is usually sent to the one police laboratory in Washington that can test it: the Washington State Patrol Toxicology Lab in Seattle, established in 1963.
Sixty years later, that lab is running out of space — and wait times have run up, peaking during the pandemic at more than a year to turnaround a case, according to WSP scientist Brian Capron.
“What I hear across the state is appreciation, coupled with frustration,” said Washington State Patrol spokesperson Chris Loftis. “It’s reality. Whether they’re in the the investigatory, prosecutorial, or the defense side, they’ve been very frustrated by the fact that the need has outstripped capacity.”
But after more than half a century, the WSP is about to open their second toxicology lab in the entire state. And it’s located in the heart of Federal Way.
Capron, who has worked in toxicology for 27 years, is excited for the rare opportunity to build a new lab from nothing as the Federal Way toxicology lab manager. It will offer work stations for 10 scientists to work simultaneously — and with a lot more elbow room than the currently “cramped” Seattle lab. The Federal Way site is located at 33810 Weyerhaeuser Way S., Suite 100.
“In 27 years, it’s the first time it’s ever happened in my career,” said Capron. “It’s not very often that you get a brand new lab. It’s very exciting to see the transformation, and by the end of next year, seeing that impact on the turnaround time (and) the backlog.”
Rising cases, longer waits
The delay in toxicology tests, and the associated backlog, developed roughly around 2013 to 2017.
According to data from the WSP, their toxicology case submissions grew from around 11,000 in 2012 to about 15,400 last year. They are track to surpass 16,000 case submissions this year, Capron said, which he called “just an astronomical amount of cases.”
Requests for testing in death cases have remained mostly flat. The increase is mostly due to more DUI (driving under the influence) and DRE (drug recognition examination) cases, which have nearly doubled from 2012 to 2022.
Officers are testing more frequently for drugs like cannabis, Loftis said, since Washington voters legalized recreational cannabis use in 2012. Meth and fentanyl — the synthetic opioid that’s 100 times stronger than morphine — have also grown more common among drivers in suspected DUIs, Loftis said. Rising prescription drug abuse has also contributed.
You can’t compare turnaround times apples-to-apples, Capron said, because scientists nowadays are testing for far more drugs and handling far more cases.
So while the turnaround time 20 years ago was less than 30 days, it’s unlikely the WSP will get back to that timeframe anytime soon, Capron said.
Turnaround times prior to the backlog’s development used to be 60 to 90 days, Capron said, and the WSP hopes to get back down to that manageable two-to-three month wait time soon. But for at least a couple of years, the turnaround time has exceeded 365 days.
The delays have real-world consequences: Families can wait months to learn why their relatives died, or to receive inheritance and insurance benefits. Court cases that hinge on an official cause of death or DUI test can hang in limbo. Tracking the opioid crisis becomes trickier.
In 2018, when statewide drug testing submissions first hit 10,000 cases, Cowlitz County coroner Tim Davidson reported that death certificates, which used to take several weeks to finish while his office awaited test results, had ballooned to roughly five months.
Streamlining has already helped take a bit of the pressure off since then.
Coroners and medical examiners can outsource death case samples to private toxicology labs, though the prices can be prohibitive. Similarly, the WSP has been able to send many death investigations to an off-site lab thanks to Department of Health grants, and it has found ways to be more efficient with drug testing.
For instance: If a DUI driver is found to have a massive amount of alcohol in their blood, the toxicology lab might wrap up after just that test, since it already proves they were impaired. Attorneys afterwards can ask the scientists to check for other drugs like cannabis or opiates if needed, Capron said.
Those creative measures have started reducing the wait times from their peak since January, Capron said, but the WSP wants to reduce the wait faster and eventually bring death cases back in-house.
The state patrol gets it, Capron and Loftis said — everyone suffers from the delays. Coroners and medical examiners have accreditation standards they must maintain, law enforcement wants to see dangerous drivers held accountable, and the public wants their government to work for them.
“When people read a story saying that a judge has kicked out a DUI because they weren’t able to provide the lab results on time, and it didn’t meet the speedy trial responsibilities … that leads to a further degradation of trust,” Loftis said. “When they see that we have moved heaven and earth, we have spent the money, we have brought in the people, … and we’ve taken that year wait down … I think that’s a restorative message.”
Back to the lab again
Federal Way fit the bill for the WSP’s new location. It’s strategically located close to Seattle so scientists and equipment can be transferred easily.
Plus, “about half of our staff live south of Seattle, and half of our staff live in Seattle (or) north,” Capron said.
The WSP’s toxicology division fielded 14 forensic scientist positions in 2012, and has up to 22 positions now. But three of those openings are for scientists-in-training — who Capron hopes will be performing casework by the end of the year — and the other seven are vacant.
While more cases means more work, the toxicology backlog is also due partly to the mundane — retirements, transfers and other life circumstances which, around around five or six years ago, led to the department shedding about 60 to 70 years of combined experience, Capron said.
Capron doesn’t blame them for pursuing other opportunities, but they were a “tough loss” as the department faced a growing workload.
“Even though there was an increase in submissions, there was never an increase in personnel,” Capron said.
The Federal Way lab is now in its “infancy,” said Capron. The first step is validating and verifying the instruments ahead of an accreditation visit in the next few months. By the end of the year, they hope to be testing samples just like they already are in Seattle.
They’ll start by taking half the staff of the Seattle lab, six scientists, and bringing them down to Federal Way. They hope that coincides with three new scientists who will be joining the team around late 2023.
That small bump in personnel alone will make a big difference, Capron said, but it won’t mean the backlog will magically disappear. The division will still be looking to fill another seven vacant scientist jobs at either lab, with the goal of eventually maxing out those 22 total positions.
“We’re talking people doing 1,000 cases a year, probably, at a minimum,” he said. “When you only have 10 scientists authorized to do that work, and 16,000 cases coming in (each year), the math doesn’t work out. There’s your backlog, which continues year after year.”
Getting the right scientists isn’t easy, because this is not a “normal” job, Capron said: The ideal applicant is a smart, positive go-getter with excellent science and public speaking skills who can pass a background check.
Once hired, it can take 12 to 18 months before a new scientist is ready to take on cases. They must demonstrate the ability to test for certain compounds and run samples.
“Only then would they get certified by the state toxicologists to perform that one test,” Capron said. “But we’ve got 15 to 20 different tests.”
Scientists are often called to testify in cases where their drug test results are needed — so the scientists must face a mock trial, where WSP staff act as prosecutor and defense attorney and cross-examine the scientists on their work. They also need public speaking skills for giving presentations.
“It’s a very long process, and I think a lot of people don’t quite understand that,” Capron said. “You’ve got to go through the recruitment process, interviews, polygraph, background checks. … We’re asking a lot of people.”
Their training also culminates with solving case competencies. They’re given blood samples spiked with different drugs, Capron said, and the scientists must uncover what and how much is in the sample. When the tests are passed and the paperwork finished, the scientists can start attacking the backlog.
It’s a “significant journey” for those interested, Loftis said, but it’s worth it.
If you are accused of driving drunk, or were injured by a drunk driver, “you definitely want the people reviewing the evidence and testifying about what happened … to be the highest performers we can have, on an ethical, legal, scientific and personal level,” Loftis said. “We owe it to everybody … to put the very best people in the system.”