The opioid crisis has flooded the state’s crime lab network with drug-testing requests, creating a backlog that has left some law enforcement agencies waiting months for the results they need to prosecute drug traffickers.
Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office, which runs the Bureau of Criminal Investigation crime lab, says it has reduced the backlog by greatly ramping up staffing and farming out work to other labs, including opening a new BCI branch in Springfield.
But Democrats who well remember how Republican DeWine hammered his Democratic predecessor over crime-lab backlogs during the 2010 race for attorney general, argue that DeWine has failed to deliver on his promise to improve turnaround times. In a twist, this year’s governor’s race could pit DeWine against Richard Cordray, the person he beat in that 2010 AG race.
Cordray is one of six candidates in the Democratic primary and DeWine one of two in the Republican primary. The winners will face off in November.
“It is ironic that he campaigned that he was going to speed things up,” said David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party and DeWine’s opponent in 2014. “This is seven years of poor management.”
The head of the BCI lab, Tom Stickrath, said drug-testing cases have increased in volume and are taking longer due to the more complex nature of the drug combinations found on Ohio’s streets.
BCI labs — located in Bowling Green, Richfield, London and now Springfield — handled about 14,500 drug-testing assignments in 2011. Last year, they handled 24,826, or an increase of more than 70 percent.
And where scientists used to get samples of heroin or cocaine, which are easy to test, they are now getting powders that can have three or four drugs mixed together.
“What that’s done for us is it’s changed the way we test the drugs, and it’s changed our safety precautions,” Stickrath said.
Rather than the simple chemical tests once done on substances in the field and then confirmed in the lab, technicians must now do all testing in the lab, Stickrath said.
Safety is also a huge concern as more powerful opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil are increasingly present in the drugs tested.
According to numbers released by the AG’s office in December, 2017 saw a 380 percent increase in submissions of confirmed carfentanil compared to all of 2016, and a 46 percent increase in fentanyl.
Staffers follow strict precautions that include wearing goggles and masks while testing substances, Stickrath said. He no longer walks into the lab to see what his staff is working on because the danger of coming into contact with deadly drugs is too high.
Prior to the drug epidemic, BCI would typically turn around drug chemistry cases in under a month. At one point last year, the turnaround time for getting a lab test back to law enforcement reached 136 days, BCI spokeswoman Jill Del Greco said. Because of the increased staffing and outsourcing efforts of the AG’s office, that’s been reduced to about 90 days and should continue to fall as more new staffers complete training, she said.
BCI hired seven scientists last year and another three so far in 2018.
The state also has contracted with Hamilton and Cuyahoga counties to outsource some of BCI’s work there as well as with a private lab in Pennsylvania.
Pepper questioned why local labs aren’t doing the work that is being sent elsewhere.
“There’s a network of labs that do this work in the state,” he said. “(Ohio) has short-funded the local labs.”
‘They can’t prosecute their cases’
DeWine made crime-lab processing times a central tenet in his campaign for the attorney general’s office in 2010, and TV ads criticized Cordray’s stewardship of the office, saying there were delays of up to six months to process some lab tests.
Politifact Ohio later labeled the statement half-true because during his tenure Cordray had reduced the average turnaround to about 71 days, or a little more than two months.
Cordray defends his time as attorney general, saying he inherited a mess. He was elected to the office in November 2008 after his predecessor, Democrat Marc Dann, resigned amid a sex scandal and other controversies.
“I went into the attorney general’s office in the wake of a crisis and resignation and scandal in that office and things were fairly jumbled, so we had to get them back on track,” Cordray said while campaigning for governor in Dayton on Tuesday. “And what I did was introduce robotics into the laboratories of BCI and that helped to start to bring down the (backlog) numbers.”
Cordray said DeWine continued the progress that was already begun before he took office. “So essentially he’s taking credit for a program that we instituted that over time was going to solve this problem,” he said.
Cordray said he’s heard from sheriffs frustrated about the backlog on drug tests.
“It’s pretty galling to local law enforcement who are then stuck,” he said. “They can’t prosecute their cases. There is no explanation for that other than bad administration by the current attorney general’s office and so I don’t see how you can otherwise explain that away.”
‘A nationwide model’
DeWine’s campaign said he has championed getting more money — not just for BCI to increase drug-testing capacity, but for labs across the state to get more as well.
The last biennial budget included $4 million for crime lab work related to the opioid crisis, including $2 million for BCI, $500,000 for the Ohio State Highway Patrol and $1.5 million for the AG’s office to distribute to labs around the state.
“This was an ask from AG DeWine’s office to the House to do this,” said Ryan Stubenrauch, spokesman for DeWine’s campaign.
The $1.5 million was distributed to seven labs — including $235,000 to the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab in Dayton — with one lab in Toledo still to be funded pending accreditation.
“Despite record increases in submissions for DNA and drugs, Mike DeWine has turned BCI into a nationwide model for states all around the country to emulate,” Stubenrauch said. “By changing the culture and eliminating the bureaucracy that existed under Richard Cordray, the state crime lab has been able to receive and complete testing of 13,931 forgotten rape kits in the face of the biggest drug epidemic in Ohio’s history.”
Rape kit backlog eliminated
DeWine office touts efforts that it says eliminated the previous backlog in testing rape kits, resulting in charges against hundreds of attackers.
The untested kits — key evidence in sexual assault cases — were submitted by 294 law enforcement agencies from 75 counties. BCI uploaded 8,648 profiles to the national DNA database, resulting in 5,024 matches to offender DNA to date.
No longer dealing with the backlog, BCI scientists are freed up to work on incoming cases faster, Stickrath said. That has improved turnaround time for DNA cases and could help spread out the drug testing work as well, he said.
The opening of the Springfield BCI lab last year has immensely improved the speed at which drug evidence is processed, according to local officials.
“The turnaround for cases has decreased as far as getting the lab results back,” Springfield Police Capt. Mike Varner told the Springfield News-Sun in November.
Armed with some of those test results, Clark County Prosecutor Andy Wilson held a special grand jury in October for 33 drug cases.
Varner said the lab, which includes two scientists, has made local law enforcement more efficient.
“We are actually able to get the cases through faster,” he said, “and if someone needs to testify in court, they are just down the hall.”