Concern grows over drug so dangerous you could die by just touching it

GREENFIELD – The increased prevalence of fentanyl — a drug so potent, it can be lethal to the touch — around the state has prompted local law enforcement officers to consider overhauling procedures for handling unknown substances and testing drugs confiscated in the field.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid-based painkiller that is more than 50 times more potent than morphine, officials said. In raw form, the drug is so powerful just touching it with a bare hand can pose serious health threats, even death, said Hancock County Sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Rasche.

Now, local law enforcement agencies want to put safeguards in place to protect officers who might come in contact with fentanyl during their patrols, Rasche said. The local sheriff’s department is considering purchasing face masks, full-body protective suits and special drug-testing equipment, he said.

Fentanyl is considered a schedule 2 controlled substance. When administered by a doctor, it helps people recovering from major surgeries rest with ease; but now, it is being sold on the streets mixed with other drugs, most commonly heroin, officials said.

On Aug. 23, police in Jennings County reported heroin laced with fentanyl killed one person and left 12 others hospitalized. That same day, in nearby Jackson and Bartholomew counties, five overdoses were reported, and Indiana police were investigating a connection to 34 more overdoses reported that day in Cincinnati, according to the The Associated Press.

Twice in the past month, Hancock County police officers have confiscated fentanyl during traffic stops along Interstate 70, including one incident when five pounds of the substance was found, investigators said. At least one person has died from overdosing on the drug in the past year, according to the coroner’s office.

And national statistics show police across the country are running into the drug more often, with experts from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration saying the U.S. in the midst of a fentanyl crisis.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and DEA showed a 426 percent increase in the amount of fentanyl-laced drugs confiscated by police across the country from 2013 to 2014.

In 2013, police in the U.S. seized fentanyl-laced drugs 1,015 times compared to 5,343 in 2014, the study found. From August 2013 through the end of 2015, police across the nation seized more than 200 kilograms of illegally-produced fentanyl products, according to DEA.

Currently, it’s hard to know how common fentanyl-laced drug use is in Hancock County, Rasche said.

Investigators are trained to recognize street drugs but always send the substances away for testing to be sure, Rasche said. Lab reports confirm or deny their suspicions but don’t include a full breakdown of every substance found in the seized sample, he said.

The sheriff’s department is considering purchasing field drug-test kits that will specifically denote if the substance contains fentanyl. This will help police better understand fentanyl’s impact within the community and protect officers who are handling the drug.

Officers are trained to handle all unknown substances with glove-covered hands, but testing specifically for fentanyl will alert officers to use extra precautions if the instant field test comes back positive for the drug, Rasche said.

Federal investigators believe the increased prevalence of fentanyl-laced drugs on the nations streets is to blame for a spike in overdose deaths across the country, and local officials say they suspect the same, Greenfield Police Detective Lt. Randy Ratliff said. Overdoses involving opioid–based drugs increased by 79 percent in the United States 2013 to 2014, according to the CDC and DEA study.

Of the 22 overdose deaths that occurred in 2015, only one was from fentanyl use, according to records provided by the Hancock County Coroner’s office; but Ratliff suspects many more involved fentanyl-laced drugs.

Greenfield Police already carry protective masks in their cars to help keep officers safe, Ratliff said. There has been no discussion about adding more body suits, but the department’s leaders are constantly keeping officers up to date on developments in federal regulations for how to stay safe, he said.

The scariest part about handling fentanyl is the unknown, officers said. That danger extends to drug-users abusing other illegal substances without knowledge of an increased danger when fentanyl is involved.

“(They) have no idea what they are sticking in their arm,” Rasche said.

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.