New and emerging drugs in state crime lab evidence

Data source, utility, and limitations

Crime lab data are a partial indicator of the supply of illegal or illicitly diverted drugs. There are many limitations of the data, including: county being an imperfect geographic unit to report the data; changes in law enforcement policy, practice and resources over time; and often substantial lags between when drugs were seized by law enforcement and when they were submitted to the lab and then further lags due to testing and reporting. (Data are preliminary and will change. For more on the data, see the details at the end of the page). They do, however, provide important insights, in part due to the use of precise chemical testing which indicates exactly which substance is present. On this page, quarterly data provided by the state Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau are used to identify drugs that appear to be increasing in law enforcement seizures in the most recent quarter.

Emerging drugs in the second quarter of 2017

Non-prescription synthetic opioids

Non-prescription synthetic opioids is a group that includes some of the fentanyl analogues and other opioids not approved for human use. Compared to the average quarter in 2016, the number of cases testing positive for non-prescription synthetic opioids more than doubled to 9 cases in Washington state in the second quarter of 2017.

All opioids

The following counties saw the number of cases testing positive for any opioid more than double versus the average quarter in 2016:

Preliminary data. Data source: Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau, Washington State Patrol


In addition to Jefferson, Klickitat, Pacific, and Whitman Counties, Stevens County saw a substantial increase in cases testing positive for heroin. Note that Pacific County averaged 7.5 heroin cases per quarter in 2015 before dropping to 3.75 per quarter in 2016, and that this year Asotin County saw its first heroin cases since 2003 (these counties have small populations, so counts are very unstable).

Preliminary data. Data source: Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau, Washington State Patrol

Prescription-type opioids

This category includes opiates nominally used for pharmaceutical purposes--i.e. those legal to obtain with a proper prescription, although no prescription may have been involved in the case (i.e. diversion, theft, illicit sales). In addition to Klickitat and Pacific Counties, Chelan County saw an increase in cases testing positive for such opioids.

Preliminary data. Data source: Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau, Washington State Patrol


Asotin, Klickitat, Wahkiakum, and Whitman Counties saw more than twice as many cases testing positive for methamphetamine than in the average quarter of 2016. Note that Asotin and Wahkiakum Counties in particular are tiny, and therefore counts are unstable. Asotin saw 8 cases of methamphetamine in all of 2016, but 18 the prior year. Wahkiakum had 5 and 6 cases in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Preliminary data. Data source: Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau, Washington State Patrol


Spokane and Franklin Counties experienced substantial increases in cocaine cases in Q2 2017 versus the average quarter of 2016.

Preliminary data. Data source: Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau, Washington State Patrol

Emerging drugs in the third quarter of 2017

There were no emergent trends statewide in the crime lab data for the third quarter. Different counties had small (but more than 100%) jumps in different drugs over the average quarter in 2016:

Prior editions of this page:

Data notes

As we describe elsewhere, these data may shift due to policy and practice factors and due to the presence of law enforcement agencies or collaborations that transcend county borders.

Truly new drugs present a problem for crime lab testing: the need for a standard to which to compare the lab sample for identification. Cannabimimetics and novel psychoactive drugs (for example, variations of MDMA) are constantly changing types and classes of drugs for which as soon as a particular formulation gains enough notoriety--usually, being made illegal or causing a widely reported death--to warrant a standards company producing a chemical standard and a crime lab buying it, the formulation is changed. Thus, time trends in identified crime lab cases do not capture the rise of such a novel substance, but at best its peak and decline. Here we just focus on significant counts of new or rarely-before-seen substances.

In addition to the above issues with crime lab case counts, there are difficulties with reliably assigning a case to a particular quarter. First, the date entered as the received date for a particular case may be a few days after when the case actually arrived at the lab, which might put it into the next quarter. This date clearly comes after the actual arrest. Furthermore, testing takes time, and so results may not come until a subsequent quarter. Sometimes the initial request is for only some of the evidence from a case to be tested, and so the other items might be tested later at prosecutor request, adding further delay between submission and result. Thus, we examine the most recent two quarters on this page.

In sum, "quarter" does not mean when law enforcement seized the drug, and counts will likely change. All data presented here are preliminary.

Please refer to the other crime lab data pages for other insight: