CINCINNATI —Drugs sold on the street are rarely pure, but few chemists can tell you how much of what’s 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.
That means the county is...
The purity test 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.
“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 holds 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. Three drug chemists each process three times the amount of drug samples that an average chemist processes in a month.
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 a local or federal agency requests it.
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 costly and time consuming extra step, Trimpe said. HOW MUCH COST/TIME?
“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."
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It can take 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. 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. WHAT'S THE FINANCIAL COST OF THE LAB? THAT TIME COMMITMENT?
HOW MANY OF THESE TESTS DO THEY RUN? A YEAR? A MONTH?
For an hourly charge, the lab accepts drug submissions from any agency in the state and in nearby Kentucky and Indiana counties. HOW MANY DO THEY DO FOR OTHERS? COST?