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.