Fentanyl Is Putting Drug Investigators, Police Officers at Risk

By May Wilkerson 07/03/16

Due to the potency of fentanyl, police agencies have had to change the way they operate drug investigations, in order to keep officers safe

Fentanyl Is Putting Drug Investigators, Police Officers at Risk

You’ve probably heard of fentanyl by now. The powerful synthetic opioid, which has been blamed for thousands of U.S. deaths, is all over the news, most notably perhaps for contributing to the death of legendary musician Prince. Not only is fentanyl dangerous for those who use it, but it can put officers and drug investigators at risk, forcing law enforcement to change the way they operate drug investigations and drug busts, law enforcement officials say.

Fentanyl is often sold on its own, or added to batches of heroin, cocaine and counterfeit prescription pills in order to increase potency, making the drugs more powerful and addictive. And the result has been a surge in overdose deaths. The drug is so strong that even a speck the size of a few grains of salt could potentially kill a 250-pound adult male, according to Tommy Farmer, special agent in charge of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled. Because such a small amount can be fatal, police agencies have had to change the way they operate drug investigations, in order to keep officers safe. “If they actually touch it or inhale it, they could die,” said James Shroba, special agent in charge of the DEA’s St. Louis office. He said agents are now even being trained in how to give themselves the opioid-reversal shot Narcan, which could save their lives in case of accidental exposure to fentanyl. “This is a whole different dynamic of how we process evidence,” he said.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate which can be legally prescribed, typically as a patch, to patients with severe pain, such as terminal cancer patients. The street version, mainly manufactured in China or Mexico, is sold in the form of tablets, patches, powder or spray. Fentanyl is 40 to 50 times stronger than heroin, but its potency can vary drastically depending on how it’s made, making it particularly risky.

So far, no police officers have reportedly died from exposure to fentanyl, but there have been a number of close calls, according to report by the Associated Press. Last summer, two officers in Atlantic County, New Jersey fell ill during a home search when they discovered a bag containing heroin and cocaine that turned out to be mixed with fentanyl. A small amount became airborne, and “it became very difficult to breathe,” said detective Dan Kallen. “Our hearts were racing. We were nauseous, close to blacking out.”

Though drug enforcement agents and investigators already face dangers, like exposure to deadly chemicals from meth production, inadvertent pricks from needles, as well as threat of violence, the potency of fentanyl has changed the game, leading law enforcement officials told AP. “We definitely see it as the next big danger,” said Farmer. “With fentanyl, if the officer is simply patting somebody down, or if he’s getting a little bit out to try to do a field test and it accidentally comes in contact with his skin or the wind blows it in his face, he could have a serious problem.”

This month, the DEA issued a memo urging police officers to wear protective gloves before reaching into a suspect’s pockets and to wear masks in case the drug becomes airborne, according to AP. They also discouraged officers from field testing drugs, saying any confiscated materials should be sent straight to a lab for testing.

The drug has also affected undercover work, which is the basis of many drug investigations.

Undercover officers are now being told to accept drugs in baggies or aluminum foil, instead of by hand, said Lt. Jason Grellner of the Franklin County (Missouri) Sheriff’s Department. “Any number of things can occur and kill you,” he warned. Overdose antidote Narcan is also kept on hand during undercover operations in case of exposure, Shroba said. Even police dogs are at risk, and the DEA memo urged handlers to be careful with their dogs, who could potentially die from sniffing too much fentanyl.

Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids were involved in 5,554 reported overdose deaths in 2014, marking a huge 79% increase since 2013, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And narcotics officers say the problem is only getting worse.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.