PSA Opens New State-of-the-Art Drug Testing Laboratory

Felix Adatsi, PhD, Director, Office of Forensic Toxicology

January 2015

It’s a new year indeed for PSA’s drug testing laboratory. This month, PSA took another step toward scientific excellence in moving its drug testing operations to a new location, once again establishing a state-of-the art laboratory environment poised to provide quality forensic services to the justice community. PSA’s Office of Forensic Toxicology Services (OFTS) relocated its main lab from 300 Indiana Avenue, NW, to 90 K Street, NE, in Washington, DC.

Drug testing of defendants in the District dates back to 1970 when the Honorable Harold H. Greene, Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Superior Court, issued an order permitting officials from the City’s Narcotics Treatment Agency to conduct testing of arrestees in the cellblock of the Courthouse. Employees of that agency collected samples from arrestees, which were sent to an off-site lab. Positive results from these tests were used to refer defendants for drug treatment. In 1984, PSA received a grant from the National Institute of Justice to fund the establishment of an onsite drug testing program which included a research component to examine if drug testing at the pretrial stage is effective. This pilot project was conducted in a 600 square foot space in the basement of the Courthouse and was to become PSA’s first laboratory. The results suggested a relationship between drug use and failure to appear for court and rearrest. This small lab – known as the Courthouse Lab – is still in operation today.

The Courthouse Lab became the hub of drug testing for arrestees in the District and the results obtained shed light on the fact that both Phencyclidine (PCP) and later crack cocaine were being used in the District in epidemic proportions. The results of these drug tests exposed the use of these and other drugs in the District and led to an increase in the number of samples tested. With the steady increase in volume, it became clear that PSA would have to expand its drug testing operations. In 2000, PSA opened a new 9,000 square foot laboratory at 300 Indiana Avenue, NW, which included the acquisition of multiple high speed analyzers and GCMS technology and enabled the facility to elevate its functions to a full service laboratory. In addition to pretrial defendants, PSA drug testing eventually included offenders under CSOSA’s supervision (i.e., persons on probation, parole, and supervised release), as well as respondents ordered into testing by the D.C. Superior Court Family Court.

Drug trends over the years have undergone many transitions, and each succeeding phase led to expanded analytical capabilities in the lab and service to the community. Today, the Lab performs tests on tens of thousands of samples each month, which translates to millions of analyses for various drugs each year; and each sample can be tested for up to seven different drugs of abuse. It is against this background that we saw yet again the need to acquire a new laboratory to upgrade not only our physical plant, but also meet current challenges in detecting emerging new drugs and the changing pattern of drug use in the District.

Although the new facility is roughly the same size as our former location at 300 Indiana Avenue, it reflects state-of-the-art trends in lab design. It features an open layout so the inside of the lab where the sample analysis is done is visible through sound-proof glass, but viewers cannot disturb or compromise the scientific activities within. The new laboratory also boasts the acquisition of two new state-of-the-art high speed analyzers, which will improve the turn-around time of test results. Additionally, space has been set aside for the future addition of instruments geared toward our readiness to test for emerging new drugs.

Moving into this new facility once again brings into focus the emphasis placed on the importance of science in the mission of the Agency and the reliance on scientific evidence in the administration of justice in our communities.

PSA plans to have a ribbon-cutting ceremony in mid-February that will include a tour of the new facility.