Postmortem diagnosis and toxicological validation of illicit substance use

Elin Lehrmann, Zoan R. Afanador, Amy Deep-Soboslay, Gloria Gallegos, William D. Darwin, Ross H. Lowe, Allan J. Barnes, Marilyn A. Huestis, Jean L. Cadet, Mary M. Herman, Thomas M. Hyde, Joel E. Kleinman, William J. Freed

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


The present study examines the diagnostic challenges of identifying ante-mortem illicit substance use in human postmortem cases. Substance use, assessed by clinical case history reviews, structured next-of-kin interviews, by general toxicology of blood, urine and/or brain, and by scalp hair testing, identified 33 cocaine, 29 cannabis, 10 phencyclidine and nine opioid cases. Case history identified 42% cocaine, 76% cannabis, 10% phencyclidine and 33% opioid cases. Next-of-kin interviews identified almost twice as many cocaine and cannabis cases as Medical Examiner (ME) case histories, and were crucial in establishing a detailed lifetime substance use history. Toxicology identified 91% cocaine, 68% cannabis, 80% phencyclidine and 100% opioid cases, with hair testing increasing detection for all drug classes. A cocaine or cannabis use history was corroborated by general toxicology with 50% and 32% sensitivity, respectively, and with 82% and 64% sensitivity by hair testing. Hair testing corroborated a positive general toxicology for cocaine and cannabis with 91% and 100% sensitivity, respectively. Case history corroborated hair toxicology with 38% sensitivity for cocaine and 79% sensitivity for cannabis, suggesting that both case history and general toxicology underestimated cocaine use. Identifying ante-mortem substance use in human postmortem cases are key considerations in case diagnosis and for characterization of disorder-specific changes in neurobiology. The sensitivity and specificity of substance use assessments increased when ME case history was supplemented with structured next-of-kin interviews to establish a detailed lifetime substance use history, while comprehensive toxicology, and hair testing in particular, increased detection of recent illicit substance use.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)105-117
Number of pages13
JournalAddiction Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • Addiction
  • Biological matrix
  • Drug abuse
  • Hair toxicology
  • Postmortem Substance Abuse Assessment Questionnaire
  • Substance use disorders

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Pharmacology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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