The growth in drug use in Northern Ireland last year caused delays in providing pivotal forensic information for prosecutions, it has been revealed.
Scientists struggled to analyse double the number of manageable drugs submissions from police, with a rising number of seizures and the increasing popularity of new so-called designer substances partly to blame, a report said.
The Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI) agency scientifically examines drugs for police investigations, part of a range of services like DNA testing which it provides.
Funding from the police service, FSNI's primary customer, has been frozen amid wider public spending pressures and some of the drugs were sent on to England for analysis.
The FSNI annual report said: "Drugs submissions ran throughout the year at approximately twice the agency's capacity. More analyses, coupled with much more complexity in the analyses, have inevitably meant backlogs in the provision of what is often a pivotal piece of information in relation to prosecutorial decisions."
In 2011/12 the number of police drug seizures in Northern Ireland increased by a tenth from 3,564 in 2010/11 to 3,920 in 2011/12, a PSNI report said. Herbal cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy were the most common types detected. There were more than 3,000 seizures of mephedrone, the former "legal high" linked to a number of deaths.
FSNI chief executive Stan Brown said: "The growth in drugs use and the rise of so-called 'designer' drugs have also created a significant increase in demand and complexity versus capacity in the drugs and toxicology sections. This has inevitably led to backlogs."
The FSNI employs around 200 staff, two-thirds scientists with expertise in specialist areas such as firearms and explosives analysis, fingerprint recording, DNA and tests linked to road traffic accidents.
The agency's annual report for 2011/12, published recently, said drug cases posed a challenge.
"The number of exhibits may often be quite low in each individual case and the forensic questions relatively straightforward," it stated. "However, the unfortunate growth in drugs use and the continued development of so-called 'designer' drugs has meant a very substantial growth in the demand for FSNI's analytical services in both drugs and toxicology."