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The opioid crisis requires a new approach to narcotics field testing

The dangers of fentanyl exposure have forced police agencies to reconsider their procedures for field testing and investigation of unknown substances


Sponsored by Smiths Detection

By Melissa Mann for PoliceOne BrandFocus

It’s no secret that fentanyl use and abuse has created a crisis. The extreme potency of this powerful opioid makes exposure especially hazardous to anyone who comes into contact with even a sprinkle of the substance, including police officers.

Portable, handheld testing devices can provide a safer and more conclusive way of identifying unknown substances on scene. These devices don’t require officers to touch samples, reducing potential exposure to fentanyl and other dangerous opioids. (photo/Smiths Detection)
Portable, handheld testing devices can provide a safer and more conclusive way of identifying unknown substances on scene. These devices don’t require officers to touch samples, reducing potential exposure to fentanyl and other dangerous opioids. (photo/Smiths Detection)

Fentanyl is more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, and it can be deadly when trace particles of the narcotic are accidentally inhaled. Both law enforcement personnel and K-9 units are at risk from accidental exposure.

A Brief History of Fentanyl Use

Available for pain relief since the 1960s, fentanyl can be prescribed in five forms: lozenges, oral tablets, oral spray, IV or a transdermal patch. Illicit forms include spiked blotter paper, powder and manufactured tablets. Common symptoms of fentanyl exposure, similar to heroin, include nausea, vomiting, itching, difficulty breathing, drowsiness and unconsciousness.

Recent trends reflect a street formulation that uses unknown quantities of the synthetic opioid in the creation of hydrocodone and oxycodone lookalike tablets. Other illegal forms of fentanyl are mixed with heroin and cocaine and sold as a combination product to enhance the euphoric effects. The user may or may not know of the combination, which makes the mixture even more lethal.

Risks for Law Enforcement Personnel

Fentanyl is not only dangerous to drug users, but also law enforcement, public health workers and first responders who may come in contact with it in its various forms. A tiny fentanyl sample equivalent to a few grains of salt can potentially kill a 250-pound male, according to Tommy Farmer, special agent of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Some examples:

  • In Hartford, Connecticut, several SWAT officers became severely ill after detonating a flashbang in a known drug stash house and inhaling the fentanyl and heroin matter propelled into the air.
  • In Atlantic County, New Jersey, detectives discovered a bag of white powder, opened the bag to test the unknown substance and became ill from airborne exposure to the fentanyl.
  • An Ohio officer was rushed to the hospital in May 2017 for overdose symptoms after accidentally brushing fentanyl residue off his uniform with his bare hand.

As the usage crisis worsens, the potential for exposure among police and other first responders increases.

Many law enforcement agencies have amended their standard operating procedures for field testing of unknown substances. Some agencies may opt to forgo all field testing, while others may adopt new tools that reduce exposure or set in place protocols that require that field testing be performed only by specifically trained personnel.

New Tools Can Make Field Testing Less Risky

Field testing procedures can be greatly improved by using new portable testing devices rather than the traditional color-changing field testing kits, which require officers to scoop suspicious substances and deposit them into a small container for identification.

Many officer exposures have occurred while unknowingly handling fentanyl during this process, which often destroys the material (and potential evidence) being tested. Additionally, these kits often produce results that aren’t conclusive, which leaves responders guessing.

Portable, handheld spectroscopy devices can provide a safer and much more conclusive way of testing unidentified substances on scene. These devices don’t require officers to touch samples, reducing potential exposure. They can also definitively identify even tiny amounts of unknown substances – often through plastic baggies and other containers – and provide evidentiary documentation to be used in court.

For example, the ACE-ID handheld device by Smiths Detection uses Raman spectroscopy for accurate, non-destructive narcotics identification. The device is pre-loaded with a library of narcotics and cutting agents, as well as multiple fentanyl analogues, for testing and identification.

Take Precautions

Field testing remains a valuable tool when personnel are carefully trained and appropriate safety precautions and policies are in place, such as:

  • Officers must assume they will come into contact with this lethal substance and always don protective gear when they suspect they are in the presence of fentanyl. Gloves, facemasks or even respirators may be necessary.
  • Implementing an agency-wide policy that requires each officer to carry naloxone to counteract opiate overdose symptoms.
  • Adopting new detection and identification technology to test substances in the field faster while also reducing potential officer exposure.
  • Waiting to test suspected fentanyl substances until specifically trained personnel arrive on scene to reduce exposure risk.

The opioid crisis doesn’t show any signs of abating. Law enforcement agencies should address this very real and deadly threat to officers by enacting clear and thorough substance safety protocols and adopting technologies to reduce exposure risks.

About the Author

Melissa Mann is recently retired from the field of law enforcement. Her experience spanned 18 years, which included assignments in corrections, community policing, dispatch communications and search and rescue. Melissa holds a BS in criminal justice and an MA in psychology with emphasis in studies on the psychological process of law enforcement officers. She holds a deep passion for researching and writing about the lifestyle of police and corrections work and the far-reaching psychological effects on the officer and their world. For comments or inquiries, please contact her at melissa.mann@policeone.com

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