New and emerging drugs in state crime lab evidence: Quarters 3 and 4, 2017

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 quarters.

Emerging drugs in the fourth quarter of 2017

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

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

Emerging drugs in the third quarter of 2017


There were 6 cases of MDA in Washington state in the third quarter of 2017, after the state saw 10 in all of 2016 and 7 each in 2015 and 2014. Half of these cases were in Grant County, which saw 0 such cases in 2016 and 6 total over the four years prior to that. Clark County saw its first MDA case since 2013. (Note that Grant County includes the Gorge Amphitheater, which hosted, among other shows, the Sasquatch Music Festival on Memorial Day weekend and the Paradiso electronic dance music festival in June.)

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 5 cases in Washington state in the third quarter of 2017 (9 in the second quarter). This included 1 case in Snohomish County and 3 in Pierce County after both counties had 0 in 2015 and 2016.

All opioids

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


In addition to 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 (3 in 2017 so far) since 2003 (these counties have small populations, so counts are unstable).

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

Other, non-heroin 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 non-prescription synthetic opioids and opium. For three of the four counties that saw substantial increases for the quarter, all the cases were of prescription-type opioids, but Snohomish saw a mix of legal and illegal opioids, as noted above.

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


Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid many times more powerful than heroin or morphine. Here we highlight cases of fentanyl itself, which is available by prescription and often used in surgery, and not any of the many analogues. (Together, fentanyl and fentanyl analogues are a major contributor to the recent increase in opioid-related deaths in the eastern US.)

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


MDMA: Grant County (6 cases of MDMA, plus 3 of MDA), Island County (1 MDMA), and Pacific County (1 MDMA) saw substantial increases over the average quarter of 2016. Although a single cases does not a trend make, Island and Pacific Counties saw no MDMA cases for several years: 2010 through 2016 saw a single case of MDA in Island County and no case of either MDMA or MDA in Pacific.

Tryptamines: While technically seratonin and melatonin are tryptamines, we refer here to drugs such as bufotenine and dimethyltryptamine (DMT) used recreationally for their psychedelic effects. The class also includes psilocybin (mushrooms) and LSD. Grant County had 9 cases of tryptamines in the third quarter of 2017, of which 4 were LSD. Snohomish County had 1 case each of LSD and psychedelic mushrooms. Note that while Snohomish County had only 1 case of tryptamines in 2016, it had 5 in 2015.

Other stimulants: Asotin County (6 cases) saw more than twice as many cases testing positive for methamphetamine than in the average quarter of 2016. Note that Asotin County is tiny, and therefore counts are unstable. Asotin saw 8 cases of methamphetamine in all of 2016, but 18 the prior year. Whatcom (4 cases) and Whitman Counties (3) saw substantial increases in prescription stimulant cases, most of which were amphetamine.


Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants commonly involved with other drugs in drug poisonings, particularly with opioids. The class includes diazepam (Valium) and clonazepam (Klonopin). For the third quarter of 2017, Island County (1 case) and Snohomish County (5) saw significant increases over the average quarter in 2016. As seen above, this trend appears to have continued into the fourth quarter.

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: