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(Shutterstock)Forensic toxicology has always been the domain of the medical examiner. As far back as the early 18th century, primitive toxicology practices were already being utilized in criminal courts, and were quickly becoming an important crime-solving weapon in some of history’s most infamous cases.

Our columnist Dolly Stolze recounts one of the most notorious toxicology cases from 19th century France in the article “The Black Widow and the Arsenic Mirror.” Maria Lafarge, also known as the Black Widow, was accused of poisoning her new husband with arsenic after learning he was bankrupt and used her wedding dowry to prop up his failing business. But it wasn’t until Mathieu Orfila—who wrote the first book on forensic toxicology, called “Traite Des Poisons” in 1814 and became known as the “Father of Toxicology”—took the case as an expert witness that the truth finally surfaced.

Today, almost every death deemed sudden or with complicating circumstances is completed with an autopsy and a tox screen to determine the cause of death. Our newest columnists Judy Melinek discusses some of the pitfalls of modern toxicology in her article “Five Case Studies in Forensic Toxicology.” From poor communication with the toxicology lab to only looking at the test results and not the crime scene evidence, medical examiners can sometimes mix up an open-and-shut case with something much more complicated. Judy has laid out five everyday examples of how doing the proper toxicology proved to be the difference in determining the case.

Modern forensic scientists are not only using toxicology to determine causes of death, but to help prevent deaths as well. Our cover story documents toxicologist Barry Logan and his research team as they trekked to the Ultra music festival in Miami to take blood and urine samples from attendees. The festival, which was called “a smorgasbord of psychotropic uppers and downers,” by local media outlets, is the perfect place to try to stay on top of new designer drugs – substances that mimic the effects of illegal drugs but avoid traditional drug classifications. Most of these new drugs come from China and other parts of Asia, where they are circumventing US drug laws and being legally shipped into the country.

“There are literally labs filled with synthetic organic chemists who design drugs that circumvent the controlled substances act,” Logan said. “They are also being designed to enhance potency.”

This vital information can lead to faster and more accurate drug screening techniques that might one day help police identify impaired drivers during traffic stops, and provide first responders with life-saving information during overdoses. 

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