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Deadly opiates force law enforcement to take precautions with drug evidence

Jun 6, 2017

Powerful synthetic opioid street drugs have changed the way some law enforcement officials collect and handle drug evidence. 

Fentanyl and carfentinil are extremely powerful synthetic opiates sometimes used in street drugs that have made their way to Michigan. The drugs are especially dangerous because they can be absorbed through the air or through contact with the skin, according to Timothy Plancon, Special Agent in charge of the DEA's Detroit field office. 

"Something equivalent to just a few grains of salt, in fentanyl, could be fatal," Plancon said. "And [with] carfentinil, it's not much more than a speck of dust." 

Plancon says agents have stopped doing field tests on white powdery substances, and in some instances call a so-called "clandestine lab team" which is equipped with protective gear and respirators to test or transport the suspected drugs while minimizing the risk of exposure. 

Plancon says it's still most common for agents to see carfentinil or fentanyl mixed with heroin, but recently, agents have discovered packages of pure carfentinil or fentanyl. 

In Kent County, officers at the sheriff's office now only test suspicious drugs at specified location within the sheriff's office building rather than out on the street. 

"In the past, patrol officers were able to field test those substances for the purposes of potentially arresting someone on the spot," said Sergeant Joe Roon. "We've taken that ability out of the hands of patrol officers at this point."

Roon says the department is trying to strike a middle ground between working quickly and staying safe. He says the sheriff's office is testing some evidence on-site, rather than sending every suspicious substance to the Michigan State Police laboratory nearby. Roon says doing that would cause severe delays for investigations. 

Plancon says added safety precautions and changes to evidence-handling procedures adds to the cost of investigations.

Roon and Plancon both said their respective agencies have also taken steps to make sure officers have access to the over-dose reversing drug Narcan, or naloxone.