With usage up almost 400 percent in North Carolina, statistics indicate that a large percentage of crime committed in the state is directly or indirectly connected to drugs. In many counties, officials are seeing immediate consequences, with drug use linked to property crimes, homicides and overdose deaths. While some of the most severe abuse involves prescription drugs such as vicodin and oxycontin, traditional street drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine remain popular in many areas.
To combat this growing problem, North Carolina has implemented a variety of strategies, including one called drug-market intervention. While this specific program involves targeting areas in which drug sales occur to identify dealers and set them on a different path, law enforcement still relies heavily on traditional enforcement strategies, including heavy sentences for dealers and even drug users in certain situations. With certain offenses requiring prison sentences under North Carolina’s structured sentencing system, many people involved in drugs get swept up in the penal system and end up spending time behind bars.
Lab delays create problems
The cornerstone of many drug cases is physical evidence, which generally consists of the drugs that police allegedly find on suspects. A critical part of processing this evidence involves testing the drugs at Raleigh’s State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) crime lab. Due to a number of factors, the SBI lab is experiencing major delays in processing, with District Attorney Billy West disclosing that it can take about a year to get the necessary results. In West’s office alone, there are 758 drug cases stalled out because of delayed test results from the crime lab. Drug cases are not the only casualty of these delays, as test results for standard impaired driving (DWI) cases are similarly delayed.
While the delays have been attributed to labor shortages associated with a lack of analysts, increases in case loads and a Supreme Court ruling that requires technicians to testify in court, their effect on the judicial system is undeniable. The wait can be especially frustrating for defendants waiting for their constitutionally guaranteed right to a speedy trial. While lab delays have not generally been held to violate this right, the postponement may contribute to prejudice against the defendant, which the court should take into account.