Fentanyl Myths Highlighted In Ohio Incident

By Paul Gaita 02/15/18

A harm reduction advocate is calling for charges against a man accused of "exposing" cops to fentanyl to be dismissed.

illustration of Businessman and directional sign of facts versus myths

The Vindicator, a daily newspaper based in Youngstown, Ohio, has published an op-ed piece about exposure to fentanyl that underscores long-held and erroneous beliefs about the synthetic opioid's dangerous properties.

The story cites a January 23 incident in which three sheriff's deputies were hospitalized after a man whom they revived with the overdose reversal drug naloxone reportedly kicked the drug in their faces. The man was arraigned on three counts of assault against a police officer, but as the author of the piece—the president of Harm Reduction Ohio—noted, numerous medical professionals have stated that the drug is not likely to be harmful if exposure is limited to casual or incidental contact, and the charges are based largely on urban myth which depicts the drug as dangerous and even lethal to the touch.

According to a sheriff's report cited in the Tribune Chronicle, three Trumbull County sheriff's deputies and two officers from Newton Falls responded to a call on January 18, 2018 about a man at the Blue Water Manor Trailer Park that had allegedly overdosed on heroin. Upon arriving at the scene, law enforcement found Martin Higinbotham, 47, of Anaheim, California, unconscious and unresponsive.

Emergency medical technicians that were also on the scene reportedly used several doses of naloxone to revive Higinbotham, who according to the report, recovered and then became agitated upon discovering deputies collecting evidence.

Higinbotham questioned the deputies about their activities before kicking a glass coffee table with an unidentified brown, powdery substance on its surface. The powder reportedly made contact with two deputies' faces, and while the other law enforcement officer attempted to subdue Higinbotham, the report stated that he exclaimed, "That ain't no heroin, that's (expletive) fentanyl!"

Shortly after the altercation, the two deputies that had contact with the powder reported feeling unwell, and were sent to Warren Township Police Department, where they met a third deputy who was at the alleged overdose scene. All three were treated at St. Joseph Warren Hospital for exposure to fentanyl. Higinbotham was also treated at the hospital before being released to Trumbull County Jail.

On January 22, he was arraigned in Newton Falls Municipal Court on three felony counts of assault on a police officer and one felony count of tampering with evidence. Higinbotham pled not guilty to misdemeanor charges of possession of drug paraphernalia, disorderly conduct during an emergency and drug abuse. He was subsequently held in the Trumbull County Jail in lieu of $25,000 bond, but according to the Tribune Chronicle, has since been transferred out of county because of outstanding court warrants.

Though two of the deputies experienced slight side effects after the alleged exposure—one reported feeling an elevated temperature, a tingling sensation and labored breathing—officials stated that none of the officers involved appeared to experience any significant problems or overdose. 

In the op-ed piece featured in The Vindicator, Dennis Cauchon, who serves as president of Harm Reduction Ohio, an advocacy group that supports drug policies based on science and human rights, stated that the charges against Higinbotham in regard to the deputies should be dismissed due to the wealth of evidence which contradicts the notion of fentanyl as dangerous to the touch.

Cauchon cites a New York Times article that featured quotes from two Harvard Medical School doctors, one of whom states, "When used properly, fentanyl and carfentanil are therapeutic. When they are used improperly, they can ruin lives and kill. And when touched by human hands in powder or liquid form, nothing happens."

The Newton Falls case is the latest in a string of media reports linking incidental exposure to fentanyl with serious health conditions and even death.

In July 2017, a 10-year-old boy in Florida reportedly died of an overdose due to exposure to a combination of heroin and fentanyl, while Ohio police officer Chris Green experienced what appeared to be an overdose after reportedly touching fentanyl during a traffic stop involving two suspected drug dealers. In both cases, however, medical professionals opined that it was highly unlikely that the death and overdose were caused by casual contact with fentanyl.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.