New and emerging drugs in state crime lab evidence: Quarter 3 & 4 2021

What you will find on this page

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 focus mainly on notable increases versus overall trends.

Emerging drugs in the third quarter of 2021

As we discuss further below, the Blake decision has resulted in relatively few drug cases, and thus relatively few jumps in drug cases. Despite this, fentanyls continue to be quite prominent statewide. Unlike the prior few quarters, the third quarter saw an increase in fantanyl analogues, with 31 cases statewide. Eight counties saw notable jumps in fentanyl itself, while 11 saw jumps in fentanyl analogues. Five counties saw increases in both.

Other increases of note were smaller.

Emerging drugs in the fourth quarter of 2021

As in the prior quarter, the most notable activity was among the fentanyls, with 8 counties seeing prominent increases in fentanyl (many, again, in southwest Washington) and 8 in fentanyl analogues, with 6 counties seeing jumps in both. The increase in fentanyl analogue cases is particularly notable, with 29 cases statewide (so far) in the quarter after 31 in the prior quarter.

Preliminary data. Data source: Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau, Washington State Patrol
Preliminary data. Data source: Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau, Washington State Patrol

Other drugs: Thurston County had 2 cases test positive for buprenorphine, mostly commonly used to treat opioid use disorder. San Juan County had 2 cases positive for non-prescription benzodiazepines. Mason County had 2 cases involving cannabis.

Emerging trends?

Until the Blake decision, three drug classes stood out over the last several quarters for how often they have had increases: fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and non-prescription benzodiazepines. Although, as noted, quarter is a rough representation of time, we present time trends by quarter to illustrate the changes in the presence 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. (Note that decreases in the recent quarters may be due to the incompleteness of the testing results, and may become quarter-over-quarter increases after updating.) All three of these drug classes may be sold as themselves, or as imitations of other substances. While Washington sees plenty of "street Xanax", we rarely see fentanyls mixed with black tar heroin or benzodiazepines.

State v. Blake: On February 25, 2021 the WA State Supreme Court essentially struck down the State’s felony drug possession law. Community reports from law enforcement and jails indicated an immediate decline in arrests and incarcerations for drug possession cases. On May 13, 2021 the Governor signed SB 5476, immediately making drug possession for adults a divertible offense for the first two cases with subsequent charges a misdemeanor. Law enforcement agencies are to refer divertible cases to local recovery navigator programs. The law expires in 2023 and unless the legislature acts, drug possession will revert to not being a criminal offense in WA State. Click on "Total cases" in the legend to see the statewide effect on crime lab cases positive for any drug.

Data source: Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau, Washington State Patrol

Changing mix of benzodiazepines

The rise in "street Xanax" does not appear to be associated with an overall increase in all benzodiazepines. Instead, there appears to be a substitution effect: The first case of designer benzodiazepines identified in the state was one of the 268 total benzodiazepine cases in 2017. In 2019, illicit benzodiazepines comprised one quarter of the total, in 2020 the novel benzodiazepines were present in nearly one half, and so far in 2021 they comprise more than half of all benzodiazepine-positive crime lab cases in Washington.

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: