The potency and sheer danger posed by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, forced the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to issue new guidelines to police officers and emergency responders last Tuesday, urging them to be actively cautious during any drug encounter.
In several states, law enforcement personnel have seen firsthand the hazard fentanyl poses to anyone within close proximity.
In Ohio, the Associated Press reported an officer overdosed in a police station after using his bare hand to brush off a trace amount of white powder left from a drug scene.
In Maryland, a similar incident occurred when a deputy investigating an overdose became dizzy and actually overdosed himself. The responding paramedics who administered the overdose antidote Narcan to the officer even started feeling sick and sought treatment.
Fentanyl is about 30 to 50 times more deadly than heroin and just 2 milligrams, equivalent to a few grains of salt that can fit on the tip of your finger, can be lethal, according to the DEA.
“During the last three years, the distribution of clandestinely manufactured fentanyl has been linked to an unprecedented outbreak of thousands of overdoses and deaths,” a DEA press release stated.
In April, Tennessee issued a public health advisory on fentanyl as law enforcement began finding the drug in counterfeit versions of commonly misused pain relief pills.
“The spread of fentanyl means that any encounter a law enforcement officer has with an unidentified white powder could be fatal,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said following the release of the guidelines.
Johnson City Police Chief Mark Sirois is well aware of the devastating nature of fentanyl and carfentanil.
“We have encountered some fentanyl, but just in very small amounts,” Sirois said.
Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal shared a similar account, saying his department has only encountered fentanyl a couple of times.
In the guidelines, Rosenberg cautions police not to field test any substance they suspect may contain fentanyl. He also reminds law enforcement agencies that police dogs are also vulnerable to fentanyl.
“It’s the day and age we live in, especially from the standpoint of first responders, we have to be careful about everything,” Sirois said. “We have to use precautions at all times (and) be overly cautious. (We) treat everything as if it is something that could be dangerous.”
Sirois said his officers never field test anything suspected to contain fentanyl, which is often used to cut cocaine and heroin.
“If it’s in a package, we’ll double-bag it in plastic, label it and send it for analysis,” Sirois said. “If it’s not loose and we can secure it and double bag it, we can bring it in. Otherwise, if it’s suspected fentanyl or laced with fentanyl that’s loose, we’ll get the DEA or the Tennessee Dangerous Drugs Task Force to respond.”
Graybeal said his deputies always use gloves when handling any type of narcotic, even if his deputies are certain of its identification.
“When I got the email from the DEA (about the fentanyl guidelines), I gave it all to our guys. I gave it to our evidence technician and detention center staff so they would know what to do,” Graybeal said.
“I even gave it to our accreditation manager so we can write some guidelines on it to go along with what the DEA put out because from what we understand it’s some very dangerous stuff.”
Graybeal said marijuana wax, which his department recently made a seizure of, can also be absorbed through the skin.
According to a U.S. Department of Justice map that pinpoints fentanyl seizures of more than one kilogram, Tennessee had six fentanyl drug seizures between 2016 and 2017, but none were centered in East Tennessee.
In Madison, Tennessee, the map shows two seizures of between one and six kilograms. In Lexington, Tennessee, there was one large seizure between 15.4 and 40 kilograms, and in Memphis, law enforcement had three seizures of fentanyl of between one and six kilograms.
“We’ve had a few overdoses in our area. We’re not sure if (fentanyl) was there or not, but they’re mixing it with different stuff. So you just can’t take a chance on it at all,” Graybeal said.
Email Zach Vance at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.