When a story like Whitney Houston's death breaks, there's always a huge rush to get information. But that often gets slowed to a near-stop when it comes to the key question: How, exactly, did she die? That's because when dealing with a death involving drugs (as Houston's reportedly did), investigators rely on something called a toxicology report, which determines what drugs, alcohol, and other chemicals were in a person's system when they died, and in what quantities. In Los Angeles County, where Houston died, a toxicology report takes about eight to 10 weeks to complete, said Lt. Fred Corral, with the Los Angeles Coroner's investigations division. That's thanks in part to a backlog and in part to an exhaustive testing process. And for Houston, who reportedly had multiple substances in her system, that's going to mean a matter of months before her test results come back.
"We do try to expedite some of the cases," Corral said, adding the office would prioritize Houston's case. "But it's still going to be slow."
Generally, toxicology screenings test for a number of drugs and alcohol compounds. Each individual test "could be done in a matter of a few days. But that's ... per narcotic, whatever they're looking for," Coralle said. Taken together, the tests drag on for weeks. A negative postmortem test, which simply shows there weren't any drugs in the victim's body, takes about four to six weeks to process, Dr. Nikolas Lemos, the chief forensic toxicologist at the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office, wrote in an email.