State Crime Lab inundated with opioid overdose cases

Credit: KTHV
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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) — The opioid epidemic is impacting every facet of the criminal justice system: officers are burdened with additional cases, first responders with overdoses but another aspect calls itself "out of sight, out of mind.”

That is the Arkansas State Crime Lab. It has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic and is expecting things to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

The Arkansas State Crime Lab is averaging 21,000 drug cases every year. A growing number of those cases are due to the opioid epidemic.

While their caseload is growing, their facilities and personnel are not. Causing a backlog of cases.
Even still, the Director says, they are hoping more cases are sent to the crime lab.

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"Last year alone, we almost hit 1,600 autopsies. Which is a record for our state,” Crime Lab Director, Kermit Channell said.

Another record was broken in 2017: the number of overdose deaths in Arkansas. Nearly 300 of the overdose deaths investigated by The Arkansas State Crime Lab were caused by opioid use.

"I was really hoping this was just a little blip, a little bubble that we are seeing, but it is actually starting to become a trend, which is concerning,” Channell said,

He said that while 300 may seem like an extreme number, it is probably only a fraction of the actual number of deaths statewide.

“We only see cases here, as far as death cases, that the County Coroner deems it necessary for us to submit," Channell said. "So there's a lot of cases that we don't see that could be reported out, or not reported out as drug overdoses."

County Coroners are not required to send bodies of potential overdose victims to the crime lab.

"It is not that I'm asking for more work, but it is the right thing to do, and we need to see these cases where drugs are involved," Channell said.

From what we saw, more work is certainly not something the State Crime Lab appears to need. But it is a catch-22 of sorts.

"This is evidence from all across the state; whether it is drug evidence, homicide evidence, property crimes, everything comes in here,” the trained biologist said as he showed us stacks and stacks of evidence neatly assorted into rows. "This particular shelf here is just drug cases. You can see, waiting to be worked they wrap around here. That's a lot of cases."

Channell said eight months ago it would have been normal to see only two shelves full.

"That is significant to me," Channell said. "That really depicts the problem we have in this state and what is going on across the country."

If every case isn't counted, the Health Department won't be able to accurately portray the epidemic to the federal government, who could supply funds to help address it.

"A lot of the federal money that is out there is based on reporting. So we need to report accurately, we need to report often, because it does directly affect the federal funding the State of Arkansas gets,” Channell said.

The Arkansas Department of Health says there have actually been grants the State wasn't awarded because the recorded opioid-related deaths weren't as high as expected.

The Arkansas State Crime Lab has seen a 24 increase in drug cases over the last three years. It currently employs 19 drug chemists and their managers. But the Lab's administration anticipates, as the opioid epidemic continues to grow, it is going to need to expand its facilities and personnel to handle the growing caseload.

"Quite frankly, we are behind the 8-ball with our timeliness of service with our drug cases. That's something that concerns me that we are trying to address,” he said of the backlog.

"How concerned are you with this ongoing opioid epidemic,” we asked Channell.

"Deeply concerned," he said. "I'm concerned on different levels: of course, there's the public health aspect, but I'm also concerned about the ability for us to help law enforcement get results in a timely fashion, to go forward with the criminal prosecution or otherwise,” he answered.