Field tests of potent opioids can become fatal to officers
Police chiefs heed DEA warning
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.”