When Tim Pifer started out two decades ago as a drug chemist with the state, it didn’t take long at all to process the drug samples dropped off by law enforcement.
“There literally was a time when we’d take the drugs in, and we’d tell the officers to go downstairs and have a coffee, and we’d give you the drugs back,” Pifer recalled Friday.
Not so anymore.
Today, the New Hampshire State Police Forensic lab, where Pifer now serves as director, is looking at a backlog of about 3,800 cases waiting for processing. The lab gets about 750 requests each month from law enforcement agencies around the state that need samples analyzed but can only handle about 500 at its current capacity.
The uptick in samples being sent in has been steadily increasing over the last two decades, but the influx of fentanyl and heroin batches making their way into New Hampshire as of late have placed an added pressure on the lab.
While heroin on its own is dangerous, fentanyl can be especially volatile. And it’s getting harder for police officers, as well as those distributing or using the drugs, to know what kind of substance they’re dealing with.
In New Hampshire, this is having dangerous consequences. According to the most recent data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, there have been more than 250 drug deaths so far in 2015 — 124 of those were attributed to fentanyl, 28 to a combination of fentanyl and heroin, and 13 to a combination of fentanyl and other drugs.
At the state lab in Concord, sorting out the drug samples that come in off the street is a complex process that requires trained staff, expensive equipment and — above all — time.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who toured the state lab on Friday, recently introduced a bill that would distribute $10 million in federal grants to state labs across the country.
Shaheen said she’s hoping this proposal will help to ease the burden on strained labs like the one in New Hampshire, making it easier for them to get the information on drug samples back to law enforcement.
“This lab is doing a great job, they’re working overtime — but they need help,” Shaheen said after her tour.
If the grant money would come through, Pifer said he’d like to put it toward staffing, overtime and more equipment. His lab used to have 50 employees across all departments, not just drug analysts, but lost three during recent rounds of budget cuts.