There is only one local law enforcement agency with a crime lab capable of drug analysis. All other cases across the entire state that require testing of drugs or other evidence must be submitted to one of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s three crime labs.
In those three TBI labs, there are 33 forensic scientists dedicated to testing all the evidence in every type of investigation imaginable. Of the nearly 31,000 cases submitted last year, these forensic scientists analyzed an average 900 cases each.
According to their boss, TBI Assistant Director Mike Lyttle, that is far too many.
“We are a crime lab from the drug chemistry perspective that’s designed to do about 20 to 22,000 cases a year,” Lyttle explained. “Unfortunately, we are going to get about 30 to 32,000 drug cases a year. So that’s been a difficult challenge for us to work through.”
Another challenge, Lyttle says, is the wide variety of drugs coming into the labs.
“We are working through a number of fentanyl analogs,” said Lyttle, who leads the Forensic Services Division of the TBI. “We see different ones practically every day.”
Last year, fentanyl was submitted to TBI labs 757 times for testing and it is one of the most complicated drugs to test. Of those requests, officials say, more than 130 cases of fentanyl analogs were analyzed — leaving a backlog of more than 500 unfinished tests just involving this one particular drug.
“There is a lot of work that goes into determining what it is, working with different drug suppliers to get standards of those drugs,” Lyttle explained. “So it may be weeks to work a case where there is a fentanyl analog that’s involved, especially one that we have not seen before.”
TBI’s backlog is measured in weeks, with analysts able to complete 29,173 of the 30,819 cases submitted in 2018. It’s an improvement from the year before where 4,300 cases were incomplete by the end of 2017.
“We tend to track — from a backlog perspective — our turnaround,” Lyttle said. “The number of cases that have come in for drug chemistry has really affected our turnaround time the last two to three years.”
A recurring position granted by state lawmakers helps ease the load, and a federal grant has also allowed Lyttle to hire four more scientists. However, he says, the extra money for staffing doesn’t solve the agency’s immediate needs. These positions require training that takes anywhere from eight months to a year to complete.
According to Lyttle, his team has started talking more with district attorneys about their cases to see which evidence is necessary to test and what is not.
“It may be that a law enforcement agent submits a number of cases on an individual, but the DA only needs ‘x’ number for prosecution,” Lyttle clarified. “So, we’ve identified, in less than a year, 3,000 cases that don’t need to be worked just by talking with the DAs.”
“We are trying to attack this from every angle possible,” he added.
Not to mention, appearing in court to testify about their findings keeps scientists away from the lab. Forensic scientists have responsibilities at crime scenes, too. However, the majority of their time is spent analyzing drugs, chipping away at the backlog case by case.
“I’m not as concerned about my people not working hard enough, Lyttle said. “I’m really concerned about the number of cases coming in.”
The most common drugs submitted to TBI’s crime labs is marijuana. In 2018, scientists analyzed:
- 10,652 cases of Marijuana
- 9, 4058 cases of Methamphetamine
- 2,221 cases of Cocaine
- 1,671 cases of Alprazolam
- 1,512 cases of Buprenorphine
- 1,246 cases of Heroin
- 1,238 cases of Oxycodone
- 857 cases of Hydrocodone
- 757 cases of Fentanyl
- 497 cases of THC
Fentanyl has been steadily increasing over the past few years:
- 757 cases analyzed in 2018
- 341 cases analyzed in 2017
- 184 cases analyzed in 2016
- 99 cases analyzed in 2015
- 34 cases analyzed in 2014
- 12 cases analyzed in 2013
News 2 is investigating the impact of fentanyl across Middle Tennessee. We have special reports all day Thursday in every newscast. You can also join in on the discussion during a live town hall meeting airing at 6:30 p.m. on News 2.