Cross contamination reported at state drug lab

By: - March 17, 2023 5:42 pm

The Rhode Island Department of Health identified 52 lab cases that might involve contaminated drug test evidence. (Getty photo)

More than 50 criminal drug tests at the state’s drug lab may be the subject of cross contamination involving cocaine, the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office announced Friday afternoon.

The incident was reported to the AG’s office by the state’s Department of Health on March 14. The disclosure comes after health officials held a routine quality-assurance test at its Forensic Drug Chemistry Lab, where scientists provide testing services for detection of controlled substances in seized drugs or in evidence related to law enforcement cases.

In a letter to the AG’s office, State Health Lab Director Glen Gallagher wrote that last fall, a scientist reported a trace amount of cocaine in a sample that should not have been present.

According to Gallagher, scientists determined that the cocaine carried over from a previous sample, triggering an investigation into potential underlying causes, along with an evaluation of potential impacts on police cases.

It is unclear how the contamination occurred, but Gallagher wrote that unlike other powdered substances, cocaine’s fine particles can get into the air and settle on surfaces. Additionally, the instruments scientists use to identify controlled substances are “much more sensitive in order to detect fentanyl and other opioids.”

“Even very minute amounts of cocaine can be detected by this newer instrumentation,” Gallagher wrote.

The Department of Health identified 52 lab cases that are potentially impacted by this incident. Upon getting the alert, the AG’s office requested that all affected exhibits be retested, said Brian Hodge, spokesperson for Attorney General Peter Neronha.

“At present, our office is working to ensure that every impacted case is identified,” he said.

An additional 263 cases involving less than 10 grams of cocaine are pending review, though Gallagher said these cases may not involve cocaine.

Hodge said AG’s office has reached out to the state’s Public Defender’s Office, along with other law enforcement about the incident. He added that it does not appear that any defendant currently being held in jail or prison is being incarcerated “solely based on charges involving cocaine.”


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.