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Portage County law enforcement has had to develop measures to protect officers from accidental exposure to the deadly additives being found in the illegal drug supply.
The DEA recently issued a warning about the animal tranquilizer carfentanil -- 10,000 times more powerful than the painkiller morphine, and 100 times more powerful than fentanyl "which is itself 50 times more potent than heroin."
Both fentanyl and carfentanil, which are synthetic compounds, have been linked to numerous overdose deaths across the nation and throughout Ohio. The Portage County Drug Task Force took 13 grams of fentanyl off the streets in 2016, and seized another 6 grams of carfentanil, according to Sheriff David Doak's 2016 annual report.
Both drugs were blamed on several fatal and non-fatal overdoses in Portage County last year. And it isn't just heroin that is being laced with the killer synthetics, much of which are manufactured in China and then shipped to the United States after stops in Mexico or Canada. Multiple law enforcement officials said they have sent out marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine to be tested, with lab results confirming the presence of fentanyl or carfentanil in those drugs as well.
Portage County Prosector Victor Vigluicci said local police departments have been cautioned on handling the dangerous drugs.
His prosecutors "don't bring (fentanyl or carfentanil) into court unless we absolutely have to," he said. Unless the actual makeup of the drugs is at issue, defense attorneys and prosecutors typically stipulate to testimony regarding alleged drug evidence, and test results from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation or independent labs, Vigluicci said.
Sending the seized drugs to laboratories, however, presents prosecutors with a dilemma: Because lab testing can take weeks or months to produce results, sometimes they have to order officers to release alleged drug offenders from custody without charges, until results are available.
"We've got to balance not testing it at all on the scene and letting the person walk away," Vigluicci said. "That can be either deadly to the ultimate customer or the user We've had that discussion with the police departments, and some have loosened up on the requirements that (officers) not touch the drugs at all."
Streetsboro police last year put in place new procedures for the handling of unknown substances, Chief Darin Powers said. Officers no longer field-test any substances and if such a test is required, the department's assigned Drug Task Force agent follows set procedures to do so.
Officers who collect that evidence are required to wear gloves, masks and protective goggles with another officer on standby ready to administer the anti-opioid Narcan "in case the officer happens to be exposed to one of these," Powers aid.
Drug task force commander Larry Limbert said his agents have similar rules in place.
"We're wearing protective clothing, respirators and doing (testing) in a confined area. Every time we do a field test on drugs, we're playing with the 'buddy system' just in case there is a problem," he said. "We want a positive preliminary test on these drugs, and we're taking a lot of precautions in doing that to protect the guys."
Agents always are on standby during a test with the anti-opioid drug Narcan in case another agent becomes ill or accidentally overdoses due to exposure to heroin, morphine, fentanyl or carfentanil. The group's drug-sniffing K9s also are at risk for being exposed to the drugs, so precautions are taken for the working dogs, Limbert said.
They also have had discussions with local fire departments and EMS personnel to ensure they take adequate precautions when treating overdose patients, he said.