Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein addressed what he called a “horrifying surge in drug overdoses” Tuesday, while speaking about the fatal risks fentanyl poses to police and first responders.
“Drug abuse is crippling families and communities throughout our country,” Rosenstein said at Drug Enforcement Administration Headquarters in Arlington Tuesday. “We are not talking about a slight increase. There is a horrifying surge in drug overdoses. Some people say that we should be more permissive, more tolerant, and more understanding about drug abuse. I say we should be more honest about this clear and present threat to our nation.”
Rosenstein said drug deaths in the U.S. experienced the largest increase in recorded history in 2016, claiming more than 60,000 lives. He notes early data suggests deaths from opioids and other drugs will continue to increase in 2017.
More than two million Americans have some sort of physical dependence on opioids, and nearly 100 million Americans have a prescription for the drugs. Drug overdoses are now the number one cause of death for Americans under 50.
The DEA issued new guidance to police departments across the country Tuesday on how to handle heroin due to the increasing prevalence of fentanyl. Fentanyl is a painkiller roughly 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin that is cut into drug supplies and even put into knock-off pills.
Rosenstein said it only takes two milligrams of fentanyl, “the equivalent of a few grains of table salt,” to cause a fatal overdose.
The DEA is warning police and first responders to avoid field testing drugs and to wear equipment like gloves and masks, though Rosenstein notes even protective gear cannot always keep officers safe. A police officer involved in an Ohio roadside heroin bust May 12 overdosed after he got some powder on his uniform, despite using gloves and a mask while searching the suspect’s car.
“Fentanyl exposure can injure or kill innocent law enforcement officers and other first responders,” Rosenstein said. “Inhaling just a few airborne particles could be fatal. The spread of fentanyl means that any encounter a law enforcement officer has with an unidentified white powder could be fatal. Our officers and first responders must approach these situations with the utmost caution.”
The 20-page fentanyl briefing guide released Tuesday aims to educate national law enforcement on the lethal nature of fentanyl. They warn against using K-9 units, who are at particular risk, in situations where fentanyl may be present. For first responders they advise increased training in hazard recognition and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Fentanyl is infiltrating drug supplies across the country because of how cheap the substance is compared to standard narcotics. While a kilogram of heroin from a Mexican cartel will cost a domestic supplier roughly $64,000, they can order a kilogram of fentanyl through the mail from China for as little as $2,000. It can also be used to create roughly 20 times more doses than heroin, providing dealers with huge profits.
The DEA is also warning about fentanyl being increasingly cut up into cocaine, in addition to heroin. The development is particularly alarming for law enforcement who note that, unlike heroin, cocaine is more widely used as a social drug. They fear that users are largely unaware of fentanyl being cut up with cocaine and say it is already having deadly consequences.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releases an annual tally of total drug overdose deaths, which are also broken down by substance, but drug deaths take a long time to certify at the federal level. The final numbers for 2016 are not expected until December. The New York Times recently culled through data from state health departments and county medical examiners and coroners, predicting there were between 59,000 and 65,000 drug deaths in 2016.
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