Field tests of po­tent opi­oids can be­come fa­tal to of­fi­cers

Po­lice chiefs heed DEA warn­ing

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY TOM HOW­ELL JR.

Three months ago, the chief of po­lice in Hunt­ing­ton, West Vir­ginia, told of­fi­cers to stop field-test­ing sus­pected heroin on drug calls — just bag it and let the state po­lice lab han­dle it if the case goes to trial.

He feared his of­fi­cers might end up vic­tims them­selves, ac­ci­den­tally ex­posed to fen­tanyl, a drug 50 times more pow­er­ful than heroin but that is in­creas­ingly be­ing cut into the sup­ply of heroin on the streets, fu­el­ing a deadly epi­demic of over­doses.

“We know go­ing back to 2015 that we have a lot of fen­tanyl-laced heroin,” Chief Joseph Cic­carelli said. “In fact, some of it was so po­tent it was fen­tanyl laced with heroin, rather than the other way around.”

The Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion for­mally warned po­lice about lab-forged syn­thetic fen­tanyl in June, and in Septem­ber it ex­panded its warn­ing to car­fen­tanil, an even more pow­er­ful drug used as an an­i­mal tranquilizer. The syn­thet­ics are cheaper to make than heroin and pro­duce a big­ger high with less sup­ply, so deal­ers see an eco­nomic ben­e­fit — even if they are killing off some of their cus­tomers.

Of­fi­cers who are ex­posed to ei­ther drug can be­come dis­ori­ented, have trou­ble breath­ing or get clammy skin within min­utes of ex­po­sure. That is a prob­lem when stan­dard pro­ce­dure has been to field-test drugs, where the pro­ce­dure is sim­ple but mis­takes, such as spilling the sam­ple, can be dan­ger­ous.

“Don’t field test it in your car, or on the street, or take it back to the of­fice. Trans­port it di­rectly to a lab­o­ra­tory, where it can be safely han­dled and tested,” Deputy DEA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Jack Ri­ley said in last month’s no­tice to po­lice.

Even slight in­hala­tion or skin con­tact with pow­er­ful syn­thetic opi­oids can be toxic, said the agency, cit­ing a New Jer­sey in­ci­dent in which two At­lantic County de­tec­tives felt like their bod­ies were “shut­ting down” af­ter a bag of fen­tanyl puffed into their faces.

In mid-Septem­ber, nearly a dozen SWAT team of­fi­cers in Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut, were hos­pi­tal­ized af­ter a “flash­bang” de­vice they used in a drug raid sent heroin and fen­tanyl into the air.

Sev­eral law en­force­ment agen­cies told The Wash­ing­ton Times that they aren’t tak­ing chances, even though ac­ci­den­tal ex­po­sure hasn’t been a prob­lem for them so far.

“I’m not go­ing to be that chief who de­cided to do busi­ness as usual, when there is a new and emerg­ing threat to per­son­nel that we have not en­coun­tered yet,” said Jen­nifer Mor­ri­son, chief of po­lice in Colch­ester, Ver­mont, who or­dered of­fi­cers to stop field test­ing in June.

Ear­lier this year, the Ohio State High­way Pa­trol warned troop­ers not to open sealed con­tain­ers or pack­ages of power sub­stances and to use pro­tec­tive equip­ment such as masks and pro­tec­tive eye­wear when han­dling them, as law en­force­ment agen­cies across the state re­ported an uptick in fen­tanyl seizures.

“Cer­tainly, we’re be­ing ex­tremely cau­tious any­time we come across any­thing we’re not fa­mil­iar with. It looks like co­caine or a pow­dered sub­stance, but you don’t know what it re­ally is,” said Brian Sater­field, chief of po­lice in Galion, Ohio, lo­cated sev­eral miles off the in­ter­state high­way that runs from Cleve­land to Colum­bus.

Chief Sater­field said he ex­pects his 18 of­fi­cers to be trained in the use of nalox­one — an over­dose-re­vers­ing drug — so they can re­vive users on calls or as­sist of­fi­cers who may be ex­posed to pow­er­ful syn­thetic opi­oids.

If nec­es­sary, the chief said, he will call in spe­cially trained of­fi­cers from the greater Craw­ford County area to lock down scenes and col­lect drug sam­ples.

The Penn­syl­va­nia State Po­lice said it, too, has re­gional lab teams ready to re­spond when crime scenes in­volve po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous drugs.

“A lot of it’s go­ing to rely on the in­tu­ition of the trooper re­spond­ing to the scene,” Cpl. Adam Reed said.

Ac­cord­ing to the DEA, car­fen­tanil is 10,000 times more pow­er­ful than mor­phine and 100 times more po­tent than fen­tanyl — the drug that killed pop star Prince.

When Chechen ter­ror­ists raided a Moscow the­ater in 2002, Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties pumped a mys­te­ri­ous aerosol into the venue as part of its raid. About 125 hostages died from the spray, and sci­en­tists who ex­am­ined the cloth­ing of two Bri­tish sur­vivors con­cluded in 2012 that car­fen­tanil was among the sub­stances used.

The DEA says the syn­thetic opi­oids are en­ter­ing the U.S. through tra­di­tional drug routes from Mex­ico or right through the mail, of­ten from clan­des­tine labs in Asia.

“These labs are shame­less, over­seas,” agency spokesman Rusty Payne said. “Places like China, they’re just pump­ing out ridicu­lous amounts.”

In a widely dis­trib­uted video, a pair of New Jer­sey de­tec­tives de­scribed for the DEA what it was like to be an un­wit­ting vic­tim on the end of that chain.

At­lantic County in­ves­ti­ga­tor Dan Kallen said he forced the air out of an ev­i­dence bag to “get a good seal” af­ter a fen­tanyl seizure last year, only to get a face full of pow­der.

“I thought that was it. I thought I was dy­ing,” an­other de­tec­tive said. “It felt like my body was shut­ting down.”

Chief Mor­ri­son doesn’t want to see that hap­pen to her of­fi­cers in Ver­mont. Shortly af­ter Me­mo­rial Day, she out a memo that said on-site tests weren’t worth the risk.

“It just dawned on me that un­less we have a safer way to field-test,” she said, “I’m not go­ing to put my men and women at risk over what are low-level cases, pos­ses­sion cases.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.