CINCINNATI — Drugs sold on the street are rarely pure, but few chemists can tell you how much of what substance is inside.
Drug chemists at the Hamilton County Coroner’s crime lab are the only ones in the state who measure the purity of drugs officers seize and the quantities of chemicals mixed in.
The purity test, called quantitation, is a tool that can turn misdemeanors into felonies, experts said. It helps law enforcement take down major drug traffickers, and it helps U.S. attorneys beef up sentencing in federal cases involving methamphetamine — known as "crystal meth" on the street.
That means criminals caught with some of the worst drugs serve more time in prison.
“Most of what we’re talking about is: 'How much time is my guy looking at?’" said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Hunter, who is also the chief of the federal Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force in the Southern District.
Knowing the purity of that methamphetamine can double a federal sentence, Hunter explained — especially if chemists find the meth is at least 80 percent pure. Under federal sentencing guidelines, methamphetamine is classified into different categories based on its purity. When it's 80 percent pure, it becomes "ice," which has a much stiffer sentence than less-pure versions of the drug.
“(Purity) will change the sentencing from zero-to-20 to 20-to-40 years,” Hamilton County Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco said.
Drug Unit Crime Lab’s Busiest Section
Whenever police arrest someone for selling or possessing drugs, samples of the drugs are sent to the Hamilton County crime laboratory for testing.
“We prove they are controlled substances. 'That weed in your hand is not marijuana’ or ‘It is marijuana.’ 'That white powder is not baking soda, but it’s actually cocaine or heroin,’” said Michael Trimpe, director of the crime laboratory.
The Hamilton County Crime Laboratory receives evidence from just about every crime scene in the county, Trimpe said. The lab has five divisions — trace evidence, DNA, toxicology, firearms and drugs.
“Essentially they can’t go to court without a forensic lab report, so our lab is extremely important to the court system here in Hamilton County because practically every case that goes to trial has a forensic lab report attached,” he said.
The drug section, which receives samples from about 9,000 drug cases a year, Trimpe said, is the crime lab’s busiest division by far. The three drug chemists each process in a month three times the amount of drug samples an average chemist processes.
That’s because Hamilton County has a 10-day rapid indictment process, which means chemists have to test the evidence fast. Trimpe said each drug sample is tested in about four days.
Even though drug chemists at Hamilton County’s lab can run the extra tests, they do not test for the purity unless the test will affect the charge, forensic scientist Laura Kimble said. That's usually when a federal agency requests it for methamphetamine cases. Drug chemists only performed these types of purity tests six times last year.
In the past, chemists have also tested drug purity when local agencies need the information to further their investigations.
Why Just Hamilton County?
Not every Ohio county has its own crime lab.
Law enforcement agencies in the majority of the state’s counties send evidence to one of three state crime labs at the Bureau of Criminal Investigations. Agencies in major cities like Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, Dayton and Toledo either have their own labs or have access to a lab in their county.
So why, then, is the Hamilton County lab Ohio's only option for measuring drug quantities?
Because it’s a time consuming — and therefore costly — extra step, Trimpe said.
“All the labs are inundated with drug work. You get so many cases,” he said. “Quantifying drugs takes quite a bit of time, and they simply have chosen to not spend their time doing that."
It takes hours longer for chemists to test the purity of a drug — on top of the already lengthy process to find out which chemicals are in the substance. Agencies are charged about $100 for one hour, and it can take four hours to complete one test.
To test the purity of one drug, chemists tie up their equipment for most of the day and lose the ability to test other samples in the machine at the same time, experts said.
For the hourly charge, the lab accepts drug submissions from any agency in the state and in nearby Kentucky and Indiana counties. The bulk of their work outside of the area comes from Butler, Warren and Clermont counties, Trimpe said.