The Sentinel Role of Forensic Toxicology Laboratories to Identify and Act Upon Diverse Drug Threats by Addressing Toxicology and Economic Demands

The Sentinel Role of Forensic Toxicology Laboratories to Identify and Act Upon Diverse Drug Threats by Addressing Toxicology and Economic Demands


Forensic Science International: Synergy, September, 2022


Jeri D. Ropero Miller | RTI International
Lawrance D. Mullen | RTI International
Paul J. Speaker | West Virginia University


The societal costs from substance abuse are extensive and include treatment and healthcare costs, lost productivity, death, and costs to the justice system. These justice system costs include labor needs, analytical costs, and drug surveillance and preparedness among police, forensic laboratories and courts, and correctional facilities. Faster recognition of the drug landscape through analytical surveillance and intelligence and an anticipation of needed changes are required to better understand the economic implications of the demands of increased and novel toxicological testing that can provide a sentinel prediction of jurisdictional trends.

The 2019 Department of Justice Report to Congress on the status and needs of crime laboratories highlights the broad impact of the opioid crisis on limited public sector resources.1 For these forensic laboratories, maintaining status quo workflow requires over 900 additional positions. Jurisdictions have been slow to react with sufficient funding to keep up with the growing demands for laboratory services. As a result, turnaround times lengthen, and the backlog grows.

In this article, the authors examine the considerable amount of available literature and data supporting the toxicology and economic demands that contribute to the ever-increasing opportunity costs for forensic testing. Modeling data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, insurance industry, and Project FORESIGHT,2 cost estimates are evaluated resulting from delays in processing DUID cases. We follow the technique to value a statistical life3 to estimate the costs of delayed processing and compare the associated opportunity cost with the cost of additional staffing targeted towards alternative turnaround times in the laboratory. Together, these estimates provide benefit-to-cost ratios and return of investment metrics for policymakers.

[1]: U.S. Department of Justice. Report to Congress: Needs Assessment of Forensic Laboratories and Medical Examiner/coroner Offices (NCJ No. 253626). National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs (2019, December).

[2]: M.M. Houck, R.A. Riley, P.J. Speaker, T.S. Witt. FORESIGHT: a business approach to improving forensic science services. Forensic Sci. Pol. Manag.: Int. J., 1 (2) (2009), pp. 85-95,

[3]: J.E. Aldy, W.K. Viscusi. Adjusting the value of a statistical life for age and cohort effects. Rev. Econ. Stat., 90 (3) (2008), pp. 573-581.

Funding for this article was provided, in part, by the Forensic Technology Center of Excellence and the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice (Award 2016-MU-BX-K110).

The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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