Criteria for the Interpretation of Cocaine Levels in Human Biological Samples and Their Relation to the Cause of Death

Boyd G. Stephens, Jeffrey M. Jentzen, Steven Karch, Deborah C. Mash, Charles V. Wetli

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


The determination that cocaine is directly responsible for the immediate cause of death should be considered only when there is a reasonably complete understanding of the circumstances or facts surrounding the death. Another, more obvious and immediate cause of death must be absent, or, at least cocaine must be shown to be a significant contributing factor in the chain of medical findings that lead directly to the immediate cause of death. Not all death investigation requires the sequential steps described in this paper, but these steps must be considered early on in the investigation whenever there is scene, investigational, medical or a historical basis to believe that cocaine is directly related to the cause of death. A relatively high profile death when cocaine is known to be involved, or a death involving unusual behavior on the part of the deceased with police involvement are examples where these considerations may well apply. Information needs to be obtained as soon as possible to have the highest chance of successfully documenting the toxicologic basis for the diagnosis. These facts would include, but would not necessarily be limited to, a scene investigation (whenever possible), a careful review of the investigative reports from all involved agencies, the initial core temperature of the body as well as that of the environment at the time of the collapse or death, the past medical history of the individual, and the results of a complete forensic autopsy and toxicologic studies. Knowledge of and an understanding of the current relevant forensic literature on this subject should be available to the reviewer prior to any interpretation of the significance of cocaine upon a specific death.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Cause of death
  • Cocaine
  • Forensic toxicology
  • Manner of death
  • Scene investigation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Law


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