DEA warns of Fentanyl’s ‘unprecedented threat’ to cops, K-9s

The DEA released a video to law enforcement nationwide about the dangers of improper handling and its deadly consequences—especially to drug-sniffing police dogs

Aug 15, 2016  By Christine Stapleton, The Palm Beach Post

WASHINGTON — Fentanyl, the powerful painkiller more than 50 times stronger than heroin, has become so prevalent that the Drug Enforcement Administration is warning police and first-responders not to touch or field-test drugs they suspect contain it.  Calling fentanyl an “unprecedented threat,” the DEA released a video to all law enforcement agencies nationwide about the dangers of improperly handling the drug and its deadly consequences — especially to drug-sniffing police dogs.   

“Fentanyl is being sold as heroin in virtually every corner of our country,” said acting Deputy Administrator Jack Riley. “A very small amount ingested, or absorbed through your skin, can kill you.”  Riley urged police to skip testing on the scene.  “Don’t field test it in your car, or on the street, or take it back to the office,” Riley said in the video. “Transport it directly to a laboratory, where it can be safely handled and tested.”  Boynton Beach Police Chief Jeffrey Katz said the DEA warning was “quite scary, but not something we’ve been blind to.”  “Anytime you have a substance that’s cooked up in people’s garages and labs, you never know what’s in it,” Katz said. “Every recipe is different.”

There seems to be no lull in efforts to invent increasingly more potent — and lethal — drugs, Katz said. That means more overdoses and higher risks for police, too. In one recent overdose, the drugs were so powerful that it took ten times the normal dose of naloxone, also known as Narcan, to revive the addict, Katz said.  “As the drugs become increasingly more toxic and cut with material that makes them more addictive and more deadly, exposure to that stuff is increasingly dangerous,” Katz said. “We’re running into drugs that are more potent than fentanyl.”

When Delray Beach police, test drugs they wear rubber gloves and paper masks, said Sgt. Paul Weber, with the department’s Vice, Intelligence & Narcotics unit.  “It’s safe to assume there is some fentanyl in all heroin bought around here,” Weber said. Dealers often mix heroin with fentanyl to increase profits, Weber added. But when drug dealers mix drugs, there is no quality control, like there is with prescription drugs, Weber said.  “Users are throwing dice every time they buy,” Weber said. “For that reason, it’s a hazard for law enforcement, too.”

During the past two years, the distribution of clandestinely manufactured fentanyl has been linked to an unprecedented outbreak of thousands of overdoses and deaths, according to a DEA news release. The overdoses are occurring at an alarming rate and are the basis for the officer safety alert.  Fentanyl is used in surgery as anesthesia and to treat chronic and severe pain. It is available in pills, a film that dissolves in the mouth and a transdermal patch, which delivers the drug directly through the skin. According to the DEA, the fentanyl being sold on the street is produced clandestinely in Mexico, and also comes directly from China.

Between 2005 and 2007, more than 1,000 U.S. deaths were attributed to fentanyl — many of which occurred in Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. Last year in Palm Beach County, fentanyl was among the drugs responsible for 95 overdose deaths.  The drug is so potent that doses are measured in a microgram, one millionth of a gram — similar to just a few granules of table salt. The high levels of the drug found in fatal overdoses are especially alarming.

A 25-year-old West Palm Beach man who overdosed in April had six times more fentanyl in his system than a normal dose in a patch.   Although fentanyl is often mixed, Christian Ty Hernandez, a 23-year-old Wellington man, died in February of a pure dose of fentanyl.  The drug dealer who sold Hernandez the fentanyl, Christopher Massena, was convicted on Aug. 8 for selling Hernandez the fatal dose. He faces 100 years in prison for selling that dose and four others of heroin and fentanyl to undercover officers.

The DEA crackdown on fentanyl includes a major bust in Atlanta, which resulted in the seizure of 40 kilograms of fentanyl — initially believed to be bricks of cocaine — wrapped into blocks hidden in buckets and immersed in a thick fluid. The fentanyl from these seizures originated from Mexican drug trafficking organizations.  Fentanyl is also being sold as look-a-like hydrocodone or oxycodone tablets. The fentanyl tablets are marketed to mimic the authentic narcotic prescription medications and have led to multiple overdoses and deaths.