The spread of new synthetic street drugs — fentanyl and carfentanil — has law enforcement officers across Michigan changing the way they conduct routine stops, raids and seizures, with agencies taking heightened measures to safeguard officers and agents from accidental overdoses while fighting the state's growing opiate epidemic.
There has been a number of recent instances nationwide of officers overdosing after encountering narcotics during investigations, including one recent scare in Kent County in western Michigan, when a detective was sickened while a "white powdery substance" was being tested.
Just a 2mg dose of fentanyl, and an even more minuscule amount of carfentanil — a drug that’s 10,000 times stronger than morphine — is enough to kill an officer if it’s inhaled or even absorbed through the skin, according to Rich Isaacson, a spokesman and drug prevention coordinator for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Detroit Division.
Fear of the drugs' potency has had agents on high alert whenever heroin, a common admixture, is involved in a scene. Isaacson said agents no longer field test drug samples during undercover deals and seizures, because it could risk exposure to the potentially lethal substances.
“You can almost treat that like a hazardous materials situation,” he said. “And then you might treat that obviously with the utmost caution and have a hazmat team assist.”
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard warns against touching any unknown, powdery substance or chemical.
“In the movies of days gone by, you used to see narcotics officers put their pinky finger in something and taste it, which is absurd. ... If you see an unknown substance, you shouldn’t touch it, never taste it, obviously,” said Bouchard, whose department runs the narcotics team for the county.
In the Kent County incident, part of the sheriff's department there had to be evacuated May 30 after a detective became ill while testing suspected narcotics, the Associated Press reported. The department said standard testing was being conducted on a white powdery substance when the detective started feeling nauseous and his heart rate increased, symptoms similar to those caused by a drug exposure, WOOD-TV reported.
A hazardous materials team responded, and the detective was taken to a hospital. The detective, a Wyoming officer with the Kent Area Narcotics Enforcement Team, was given Narcan, an opioid overdose reversal drug, as a precaution.
Isaacson, whose field division includes Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky, said officials first identified carfentanil, which is used as elephant tranquilizer, in July 2016 in the U.S., and that it first surfaced in Ohio on the heels of another opiate epidemic involving fentanyl, a related substance that is a powerful pharmaceutical narcotic used under narrow practice in the medical community.
In 2015, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the state witnessed 1,981 overdose deaths, marking the state's third consecutive year of record drug overdose fatalities. Nearly 45%, or 884 deaths, were opioid related, and almost 20%, or 391, involved heroin.
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2015 numbers, Michigan ranked 15th — tied with Nevada — in the rate of overdose deaths, with 20.4 deaths per 100,000 residents. The national rate in 2015 was 16.3 deaths per 100,000 residents, or 52,404 overdose deaths nationwide.
MDHHS Chief Medical Executive Dr. Eden Wells said the epidemic has only continued to increase, and that the department expects to release its numbers for 2016 soon.
Wells said there’s a “definite role” that fentanyls and carfentanils are playing in increasing the opioid-related death epidemic, and that the rate of access to the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, or Narcan, may not be catching up to the rate of access people have to synthetic opioids.
Wells' department has been working with ambulances across the state to increase the amount of naloxone carried on board the vehicles, because she said it’s not uncommon to find someone may require a higher dosage due to the strength of the opiate they injected.
Dr. Padraic Sweeny, chief of the emergency department at DMC Detroit Receiving Hospital, said doctors usually begin with the smallest dose of naloxone needed but must remain vigilant to ensure they’re providing enough of it.
“We have seen cases where we’ve had to use more than what would be a standard dosing of naloxone, Narcan,” Sweeny said. “But is it a tidal wave of that? No, but we’ve seen cases.”
Wells said the state has been funding medical examiners in order to provide enhanced testing capabilities that show the toll carfentanil and fentanyl have on the overall overdose death statistics.
“As soon as you’re able to identify one of these new synthetic opioids, honestly, another one comes out into the community,” Wells said. “It’s just been horrific and the toxicologists are just trying to keep track of all these, and then obviously, our laboratories that can test for these are trying to keep on top of detecting these new synthetic opioids.”
The majority of carfentanil and fentanyl-like drugs are from Asia — mostly China — and Mexico, but Isaacson said it remains difficult to track down the exact origins because there doesn’t yet exist a signature program to identify chemical markers and trace where the drugs are coming from.
He said the vast majority of fentanyl-related compounds and heroin is being trafficked by the Mexican cartel, which sometimes mixes together fentanyl and heroin.
This has led the Michigan State Police to be more vigilant while on patrol.
Beginning in September, the state police introduced a new protocol that requires substances thought to contain fentanyl to be sent directly to a crime lab for testing, according to MSP spokesman 1st Lt. Mike Shaw.
If officers spot a powder and aren’t sure whether it contains fentanyl, Shaw said, they’re required to wear protective masks and rubber gloves, make sure two officers are present, and have Narcan on hand, in case someone gets exposed.
“It’s such a small, small amount that it could be in a suspect, it could be in a suspect’s cell phone,” Shaw said. “It could be all over the place, so we’re very, very cautious.”
And if state police know of a known lab where drugs are being mixed, the agency will send out a DEA-trained meth team in full “moon suits” with self-contained breathing tanks to investigate, Shaw said.
The new level of caution isn’t without a monetary cost, according to Bouchard, the Oakland County sheriff. Bouchard, who has advocated for better DEA funding to respond to “increasingly dangerous situations,” wasn’t able to provide numbers but said there is a rise in costs that comes with adding additional personnel to protocols.
“That potentially, exponentially, increases the cost if you go from a simple officer in charge collecting something to treating a scene as a hazmat, in addition to evidentiary collection,” Bouchard said.
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