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   Frequently Asked Questions  

The following are some of the most frequently asked questions regarding forensic toxicology or my consulting practice:


What is forensic toxicology?

The word "forensic" comes from the "Forum". The Roman forum was a place where public debate took place. Our justice system is an adversarial system; one side (the plaintiff or prosecution) argues their side of the dispute and the other side (the defendant) argues theirs. Thus the adjective "forensic" is sometimes applied to debate, but has come into more common usage as pertaining to anything having to do with the courts. The word "toxicology" is the study of toxic things. More to the point, it is the study of toxic substances and how they affect living things. For the purposes of my practice, these toxic substances are drugs and poisons, and the living things are humans. Summing up, forensic toxicology is the study of drugs and poisons and their effects on the human body for the purposes of legal proceedings.

Is forensic toxicology an exact science?

No, few things that involve the highly adaptive and diverse human body can be answered in exact terms. Many variables must be taken into account. Forensic toxicology should not be "practiced in a vacuum"; all the evidence should be taken into account by the toxicologist, not just a drug concentration value. When this is done, there is a great deal of ongoing research and historical information on which to base a highly-defensible informed scientific opinion. Sometimes experts will disagree. This can arise from honest differences in opinion, ignorance, or lack of objectivity. One would hope it would always be the first. On the other hand, issues involving the proof of ingestion of drugs or analytical analysis of specimens are based in analytical chemistry and often can be addressed with much more exacting answers.

What is pharmacokinetics?

Pharmacokinetics is a science falling under the broader umbrella of the well-established discipline of pharmacology. Pharmacokinetics is concerned with the study and characterization of the time course of drug absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion, and with the relationship of these processes to the intensity and time course of therapeutic and adverse effects of drugs. It involves the application of mathematical and biochemical techniques in a physiologic and pharmacologic context. (Gibaldi M, Levy G: Pharmacokinetics in clinical practice. JAMA 235:1864-1867, 1976)

On your welcome page you mention the "proper application of pharmacokinetics". What do you mean by that?

Many clinical professionals do not realize that there is a vast difference in antemortem and postmortem toxicology. In other words, many of the assumptions and variables used in antemortem pharmacology, etc., simply do not apply or must be applied differently if the subject is deceased. The list of things that must be considered is too long to discuss here, but once again this is a reason to retain an experienced forensic toxicologist.

Why would I want to retain a forensic toxicologist, why not a physician, pharmacist, or pharmacologist?

While physicians know a great deal about the human body and pharmacists and pharmacologists know about pharmaceutical products and pharmacology, respectively, their expertise is often specialized and is usually channeled into clinical applications. A forensic toxicologist, on the other hand, has spent his/her career studying pertinent information in physiology and in the pharmacology of clandestine substances as well as pharmaceutical products and poisons. Furthermore, forensic toxicologists are very aware that their work will be used in legal proceedings and are familiar with the requirements of that process. One further advantage of retaining a forensic toxicologist is that most forensic toxicologists are laboratorians as well, meaning they understand laboratory testing and the possible pitfalls of that process.

Will you work for either the plaintiff/prosecution or the defense?

As a forensic scientist, I am paid for the time I spend in researching, studying, forming, and reporting an objective scientific opinion. Which side of an argument that opinion benefits or damages is unrelated to whom is paying the bill. In my career, I have worked for both public and private laboratories. Much of that time I performed forensic toxicology services for law enforcement agencies as well as coroners and medical examiners. As a result, I have a great deal of experience in the prosecution side of the aisle, but I have testified for both the prosecution and the defense in criminal proceedings. In civil matters, I have been retained by both the defense and the plaintiff. I am perfectly willing to provide my services to any member of the legal community, it is up to them to decide if my opinion is helpful or damaging to their legal argument.

You have spent much of your career developing evidence to be used by the prosecution, why would you now offer your services to the defense as well?

Well actually I have never worked for a laboratory that served exclusively law enforcement clients. While our services were open to all comers, it was primarily law enforcement work that kept the bills paid. However, beyond that there are several good answers to your question. First, forensic science should be objective. As I have stated before, I am paid for the time spent in forming an objective opinion, based on the scientific evidence. Who pays the bill does not influence my opinion. Secondly, private citizens and defense attorneys seldom have access to the high-quality forensic science that the government has. To ensure a fair judicial system, it is imperative that they do. And finally, while most forensic laboratories and forensic scientists do a great job, there are always some that do not. It hurts the integrity of forensic science and forensic scientists everywhere when poor practices are not called into question.

Can you perform forensic toxicology testing on my client's specimens?

The laboratory that I direct is in no way associated with my consulting business. I can, however, arrange for a blood alcohol analysis (BAC) on your client's specimen with a private, ASCLD/LAB certified lab. Or, for an added expense, perform the testing myself. For other drugs and analytes, I can oversee the sending of your specimens to a competent lab for testing. See my list of services for more information.

Do you charge for your services?

Well, of course. However, in the interest of good will, I will often answer short Email questions from attorneys, law enforcement personnel, and related individuals for free.

If I wish to retain you, how do I find out about your fees, etc.?

Send me an Email or give me a call and I will send you a fee schedule and contract.

How do I become a Forensic Toxicologist?

This is probably one of the most frequent questions that I get.  With television shows like CSI, NCIS, Forensic Files, etc., forensic science is in vogue.  While I can't tell you a sure-fire way to get into the field and to be successful, I can give you some practical advice. 

Forensic Toxicology is a multi-faceted science.  There is the analytical facet where specimens are chemically analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively, then there is the interpretative facet that brings together the elements of pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics, physiology, and, last but not least, simple observation of all the facts and circumstances surrounding the events in question.  As my mentor would say, "forensic toxicology is not practiced in a vacuum". 

Keeping all of this in mind, I would recommend getting an undergraduate degree in chemistry as your first step.  Chemistry is a foundational science applicable to a great number of forensic disciplines.  Secondly, if you have the opportunity, take forensic science courses.  This will acquaint you with the "mind-set" of forensic science.  Next study pharmacology and physiology.  A class or two in statistics, logic and debate wouldn't hurt either.

While it is not absolutely imperative to have a Ph.D. to be successful in forensic toxicology; some of the most knowledgeable and successful forensic toxicologists aren't Ph.D.s, I would recommend that if you are able to, pursue one.  A Ph.D. will open a lot of doors and provide some instant credibility that you will have to work very hard for otherwise.  Very importantly, read everything you can in the field of forensic toxicology and pharmacology and never stop this practice.  Attend professional meetings, such as the Society of Forensic Toxicologists and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, where you can meet practicing forensic toxicologists. 

The rest is up to you.  Good luck.

I've been reading a lot about forensic science not being as "scientific" as we have been led to believe. How does that apply to forensic toxicology?


In February of 2009 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report entitled, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States:  A Path Forward”.  This report was critical of some areas of forensic science wherein the NAS felt that the methodologies weren’t sufficiently validated.  The disciplines singled out for the most serious criticism were the so-called “pattern matching” disciplines.  These include fingerprints, tool marks, ballistics, bite marks, blood spatter, hair, fiber, tire tracks, shoe imprints, and handwriting analysis.  These disciplines can be highly subjective in their application, that is, what might be a match to one examiner might not be a match to another.  Furthermore, whenever subjectivity is involved, bias may creep in.  Bias is not necessarily intentional and may result from subtle, or not-so-subtle, pressure from law enforcement to produce a desired result, or even from extraneous information about the case, such as knowledge that the subject has already confessed to the crime.  The NAS addressed the issue of bias, suggesting that crime labs be independent of law enforcement agencies.  Do these “pattern matching” disciplines have a place in forensic science?  I think so, as long as they are properly vetted, and perhaps, are just a piece of the evidence and not the sole factor determining guilt or innocence.  Furthermore, some techniques may find better use as exculpatory evidence to exclude an individual from consideration rather than implicating an individual.

So what about forensic toxicology?  As I addressed earlier in this FAQ, there are two facets, or aspects, of forensic toxicology, the analytical chemistry aspect and the interpretive aspect.  The analytical chemistry aspect, when properly performed and validated, is very non-subjective.   As a Popular Mechanics article on this subject pointed out, “Techniques that grew out of organic chemistry and microbiology have a strong scientific foundation”.(1)  Forensic toxicology has been ahead of the curve in providing minimum standards for toxicology laboratories for over a decade.  In 1991, the Society of Forensic Toxicologists (SOFT) in conjunction with the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) established Forensic Toxicology Laboratory Guidelines.  These guidelines, since 1996, have served as the basis of the laboratory accreditation program administered by the American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT).  The interpretative aspect, as I have also previously indicated in this FAQ, because it deals with the highly variable human body, can be more subjective, but is still based in the sound scientific principles of the well-studied discipline of pharmacology.

I would like to make two additional points: 

Point # 1:  Not all extraneous information is bad.  As, once again, I have previously mentioned in this FAQ, forensic toxicology should not be practiced in a vacuum.  That goes for the analytical as well as the interpretive aspects.  By having knowledge of the case history a forensic toxicologist can apply the most appropriate analyses on the most appropriate specimens to answer the pertinent questions regarding the case.  Furthermore by knowing the case history, a forensic toxicologist can better interpret the analytical results as they apply to the case, taking into account not only drug concentration, but potential tolerance, antemortem vs. postmortem issues, etc.

Point # 2:  Among the advantages of retaining an independent consultant, such as myself, is that I am not an employee of a law enforcement run crime lab and thus do not feel the pressure to make convictions.  Neither am I an employee of a defense attorney and thus do not feel the pressure to provide evidence for acquittals.  Every time I accept a case for review, I remind myself that I must remain objective and tell the whole truth, even if it is not what the attorney who has retained me wants to hear.

1.       Reagan, Brad. CSI Myths: The Shaky Science Behind Forensics, Popular Mechanics, August 2009