New and emerging drugs in state crime lab evidence: Quarter 1 & 2 2020

Data source, utility, and limitations

Crime lab data are a partial indicator of the supply of illegal drugs or prescription drugs that are controlled substances and suspected of being purchased or sold illegally. The data presented here are the results of the Washington State Patrol’s Crime Lab chemistry testing of samples submitted by law enforcement. While the data provide important insights into the supply of drugs, in part due to the use of precise chemical testing which indicates exactly which substance is present, they also have numerous important limitations that are described at the bottom of this page.

On this page, quarterly data provided by the Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau are used to identify drugs that appear to be increasing in law enforcement seizures in the 2 most recent quarters. (Data are preliminary and will change. For more on the data, see the details at the end of the page). We present only notable increases, not overall trends.

Emerging drugs in the first quarter of 2020

Statewide, there were significant jumps (more than double the number of cases testing positive versus in the average quarter in the prior 3 years) in non-prescription "designer" benzodiazepines and in fentanyl. We start with these, and then turn to other drug classes showing increases in specific counties.

Emerging drugs in the second quarter of 2020

Once again, Washington state saw a notable increase in crime lab cases testing positive for non-prescription benzodiazepines. This quarter saw a newly identified example, flubromazepam, that was seized, in combination with a similar substance, flualprazolam, in the form of white tablets made to look like Xanax (alprazolam) pills, according to the Washington State Patrol Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau.

Emerging trends?

Three drug classes stand out over the last several quarters for how often they have had increases: fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and non-prescription benzodizazepines. Although, as noted, quarter is a rough representation of time, we present time trends by quarter to illustrate the growing threat of these substances in Washington state. Click on the Fentanyl series name in the legend to turn that series off and better see the other two.

Data source: Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau, Washington State Patrol
Prior editions of this page:

Data notes

In order to smooth the jumps, we compare the current quarter to the average quarter over the prior 3 years (a rolling 12-quarter comparison period). This means that an unusually low number of cases in the prior year no longer creates what looks like a substantial increase, which is particularly an issue with relatively rare drug categories and/or small counties.

As we describe elsewhere, 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.

Truly new drugs present a challenge for crime lab testing: the need for a standard to which to compare the lab sample for identification. Cannabimimetics, non-prescription benzodiazepines, and novel psychoactive drugs (e.g., variations of MDMA), for example, are constantly changing. Often when 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 initial 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.

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: