JENNA-LEY HARRISON, STAFF WRITER
Lincoln County ranks at the top of the list when it comes to which area agency sends the highest number of drug cases to the Iredell County Sheriffâ€™s Office Crime Lab.
Both the Lincoln County Sheriffâ€™s Office and Lincolnton Police Department have been sending all drug seizures to the crime lab since at least last December with the onset of the new Sheriffâ€™s Office administration.
The lab receives more than 30 cases a month from Lincoln County, said Iredellâ€™s Forensic Laboratory Director Misty Icard.
â€œWeâ€™re glad to keep them busy,â€ Lincoln County Sheriff David Carpenter said.
Icard has been overseeing the lab since 2009 when the Iredell County Sheriffâ€™s Office began work on its first set of drug cases. The lab used to be the site of the previous Sheriffâ€™s Office facility. Renovations to the building were made in 2008.
â€œItâ€™s growing, and Iâ€™m really proud of it,â€ Icard said.
Prior to sending drug seizures to Iredell County, Lincoln Countyâ€™s two law enforcement agencies submitted their drug evidence to the State Bureau of Investigation, located in Wake County, N.C.
Although both the SBI and Iredell County Crime Lab process state agenciesâ€™ drugs pro-bono, the processing time between the two is vastly different, Icard noted.
Because the SBIâ€™s Western Regional Lab in Asheville takes in at least 100 cases a week, lab officials often require processing time of at least six months. SBIâ€™s State Crime Lab in Raleigh and their Triad Regional Lab in Greensboro handle additional cases.
On the other hand, the Iredell County Crime Lab only requires between two and four weeks to process a case, lab officials said. However, Icard revealed that lately, a high volume of cases has increased processing time to around six weeks.
A majority of the drugs lab officials are receiving from both Lincoln County and the other eight to 10 agencies they currently process include pills and cocaine, particularly â€œcocaine baseâ€ or crack. However, bath salts and various kinds of synthetic cannabinoids â€œare on a steady increase,â€ Icard noted.
Because a large number of cannabinoids and bath salts exist in todayâ€™s drug society, it takes extensive time and research to accurately identify the substances, Icard said.
Authorities further explained that synthetic cannabinoids are substances resembling marijuana that have been sprayed with the chemical that offers a similar â€œhigh.â€
Other frequent drugs that come through the lab include cocaine and particularly heroin, a substance that lab officials said is â€œmaking a comeback.â€
Methamphetamine and Ecstasy seldom come through the lab. Icard noted that when ecstasy does make an appearance every so often, the soft, round tablets are often stamped with a specific symbol associated with a particular gang or holiday. Various stamps include a smiley face, four-leaf clover, jack-o-lantern and peace sign, among others. A poster of the dozens of different tablet colors and markings along with other types of illegal drugs cover the crime labâ€™s wall.
Lab officials noted that they utilize at least two separate testing methods during processing â€” a color test and an instrumental test.
In color testing, a chemical called Marquis Reagent is applied to a substance, and depending on how concentrated a drug is, it will turn a particular color or shade of a set color. For example, bath salts turn yellow, meth turns orange and heroin become purple, Icard said.
Lab officials noted that they no longer test misdemeanor amounts of marijuana and only occasionally test felony quantities as requested by the District Attorneyâ€™s Office.
â€œThey donâ€™t see the need to waste our time and request the $600 lab fee for a misdemeanor,â€ Icard said.
Often times, color testing allows lab officials to know whether or not itâ€™s even necessary to continue with a case. The test is deemed â€œa good starting pointâ€ that gives authorities an idea of what a substance may or may not be. However, such testing doesnâ€™t always â€œauthenticateâ€ a drug, Icard added.
The second test, instrumental, requires a forensic machine called a Gas Chromatogram/Mass Spectrophotometer (GC/MS) to separate a drug into its most basic parts.
Because certain substances can be masked during the color test, Icard noted that itâ€™s always necessary to perform an instrumental test â€œto make sure nothing is there.â€
For example, Iredell County Sheriffâ€™s Interdiction Criminal Enforcement team (ICE) seized three kilos of heroin this month during a vehicle stop on I-77 northbound.
â€œItâ€™s the largest heroin seizure Iâ€™ve ever seen,â€ Capt. Darren Campbell noted.
While he joked that he likes to keep his hands in his pockets while in the lab, he explained the significance of testing each drug even if it can be assumed itâ€™s something else. The heroin that was seized appeared grayish-brown in color rather than its standard shade of white or off-white.
In addition to testing drugs from Lincoln County and other area agencies, lab officials are currently in the process of becoming accredited. This past March, Gov. Beverly Purdue signed into law House Bill 27, also known as the Forensic Sciences Act of 2011, according to the North Carolina General Assembly Website.
The bill stated that state labs and lab officials must be certified and accredited.
An amendment to the act, known as House Bill 741, was filed the following month and confirmed that agencies other than SBI also had to be accredited. The bill additionally moved up the accreditation date to October 1, 2012.
The amendment has yet to be officially signed into law. However, it passed its third reading in June and is currently still in the Senate Committee, the NCGA site showed.
Lincoln County Sheriff David Carpenter is beyond pleased with the switch from SBI to Iredell Countyâ€™s Crime Lab, particularly the â€œclose accessibilityâ€ to a lab now, he said.
â€œThe turn-around time is so much quicker,â€ he noted.
He also praised the fact that heâ€™s been able to meet the lab officials who are processing the countyâ€™s drug cases.
â€œThey are very receptive to our business,â€ Carpenter said.
â€œItâ€™s just a great benefit to our agency that they are allowing us to use it (the lab). From my years of dealing with labs, this opportunity is really unheard of. When they first offered it, I thought we canâ€™t go wrong.â€