The U.S. Justice Department announced yesterday it will review staffing levels and procedures in its drug testing because of delays that have caused the dismissal of more than 100 misdemeanor drug cases in the District during the last six months.
"We want to see if we can't speed up the process," said John Russell, a spokesman for the department. "We hope something will be forthcoming."
Russell said the Justice Department decided to review staffing levels and procedures at the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's mid-Atlantic laboratory after reports in yesterday's Washington Post that an average of a dozen, and often more, misdemeanor drug cases were being dismissed each week because of lengthy delays in obtaining drug analysis results.
In the article, prosecutors and police complained that the delays were blunting their efforts to combat drug crimes; some prosecutors said that as many as several hundred cases had been dismissed in the last several months. DEA officials said they had a backlog of about 1,200 cases, but they blamed the failure of federal funding levels to keep pace with an explosion of drug arrests.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Marion Barry said yesterday he was "very concerned" by the delays and is "going to push for those involved to do something about it immediately."
"The mayor feels it is outrageous that the federal government is holding up in the prosecution of these cases," said Annette Samuels, Barry's press secretary.
There are 26 chemists assigned to the mid-Atlantic lab to field about 1,000 requests a month, 600 of them for the District and 400 for the FBI, the DEA itself and federal drug cases in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. DEA officials say the 26 chemists are able to perform tests in only about 35 cases during the half day devoted to analyses because the drug testing is complex and time-consuming. Each analysis requires about 3 1/2 hours of full-time work by a chemist.
U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova said yesterday it was unfair to criticize the federal response to District law enforcement problems, citing the recent addition of prosecutors and judges. But he said his office was "taking every responsible step to deal with" the delays.