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 fentanyl.
The agency has 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.”
During the last two years, the distribution of clandestinely manufactured fentanyl has been linked to an unprecedented outbreak of thousands of overdoses and deaths. The overdoses are occurring at an alarming rate and are the basis for this 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, that 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, over 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.
According to DEA’s National Forensic Lab Information System, 13,002 forensic exhibits of fentanyl were tested by labs nationwide in 2015, up 65 percent from the 2014 number of 7,864.
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 a fentanyl level of 18.2 ng/ml. A person wearing a transdermal patch would have a level between 0.8 – 2.6 ng/ml.
Although fentanyl is often mixed with heroin to increase its potency, dealers and buyers may not know exactly what they are selling or ingest. Christian Ty Hernandez, a 23-year-old heroin addict who lived in Wellington, overdosed in February on a pure dose of fentanyl. No other drugs were found in his system.
The drug dealer who sold Hernandez the fentanyl, Christopher Massena, faces 100 years in prison for selling the fatal to Massena and four other doses 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 counterfeit or look-a-like hydrocodone or oxycodone tablets. These fentanyl tablets are marked to mimic the authentic narcotic prescription medications and have led to multiple overdoses and deaths.
According to a DEA press release: “This is an unprecedented threat.”