PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island attorney general is expressing frustration with how long it took the R.I. Department of Health to notify him about a mistake at the state drug lab, saying the problem could affect hundreds of cases.

The Health Department last week disclosed a state scientist reported a trace amount of cocaine in a lab sample that shouldn’t have been present during a routine quality assurance test in November. Attorney General Peter Neronha wasn’t alerted to the issue until last week, and he said the belated disclosure has sent his staff into a scramble as they try to get a handle on the potential fallout.

“I wish I had been notified earlier,” Neronha told Target 12. “If I had been notified earlier, perhaps we would have known what this number was then.”

“I could have worked on this project then, and notified defense counsel then,” he added.

Health officials said the issue — which they attributed to cross-contamination — triggered an internal review of that scientist’s case work since 2021. The review concluded that evidence in 52 cocaine-related felony cases needed to be re-examined.

On Tuesday, Neronha said officials will also have to scrutinize at least another 263 misdemeanor cocaine possession cases the lab scientist worked on during that period. (The attorney general’s office doesn’t always prosecute misdemeanor cases, but cocaine possession charges fall under its purview.)

Neronha’s office is now working with 18 different police departments — including the R.I. State Police — to try and sort through the potential implications, and he’s already begun notifying defense attorneys with clients involved in the cases.

At least a dozen people whose cases are being reviewed are currently incarcerated. Neronha said his office is confident all but one are not being held because of cocaine charges alone, but nonetheless said he’s concerned about the implications of there being a mistake at the lab that handled their case evidence.

He did not immediately provide specifics about the person who is incarcerated for cocaine charges alone.

“We have to make sure the court and the defense bar and the people of Rhode Island have confidence in this system, which is why we were very concerned when we got this notice and acted immediately to respond to it,” he said.

State health leaders declined to be interviewed, but spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said they waited to notify the attorney general’s office because they wanted to do their own analysis of what went wrong. The department is currently led by an interim director, Dr. Utpala Bandy, following the departure of Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott 14 months ago.

“We needed time to do a root-cause analysis to understand what was causing the discrepancy,” Wendelken said.

The Health Department removed the lab scientist from reviewing cocaine-related cases until the person can be retrained on the equipment.

Neronha said he maintains confidence in the Health Department and the forensic work it does on criminal cases, although he’s aware it could result in defense attorneys filing motions disputing evidence and asking for charges to be dropped.

“I have an obligation to the criminal justice system and to defendants to make sure that they are not being prosecuted unfairly or based on evidence that is not reliable,” Neronha said.

Eli Sherman ( is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White ( is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.