The Missouri State Highway Patrol is prohibiting officers from field testing suspected drugs over concerns of police exposure to the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.
Officials with the Highway Patrol told prosecutors of their intention to shift policy in December, but the official changes went into effect this month. Fentanyl overtook heroin as the deadliest substance in the U.S. in 2016, claiming 19,413 lives in 2017, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Law enforcement bodies throughout the country have been reforming practices to better protect K-9 units, officers and their families from unintentional exposure to fentanyl, which can be deadly, reports U.S. News and World Report.
The shift in their longstanding policy comes after the Drug Enforcement Administration encouraged law enforcement bodies throughout the country in June to consider phasing out field testing of narcotics and to arm officers with better protective equipment. They also noted fentanyl can pose a fatal threat officers’ K-9 counterparts, who are trained to sniff out illicit narcotics.
Fentanyl is a synthetic painkiller roughly 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine that can be fatal in small doses to people who come into contact with it. Analogs like carfentanil, a synthetic replication of fentanyl used for tranquilizing elephants, are roughly 10,000 times more powerful than morphine.
Officials worry the end of field testing will significantly impact criminal cases involving drug possession charges. Field test results are often critical to making an arrest and handing down formal charges. Without it, state persecutors fear they will have to rely on the state crime labs, which are often backlogged and can take several weeks to perform a chemical analysis.
John Hotz, a spokesman for the Missouri Highway Patrol, said, according to U.S. News and World Report, they have, “put protocols in place for limited rapid testing in a laboratory setting when necessary for prosecution or continuation of an investigation.”
The state police of Oregon recently ordered their officers to stop field testing drug samples due to the increased threat posed by fentanyl. Representatives with the Oregon State Police say the decision is ultimately about protecting the health of first responders due to the “rapidly evolving threat” posed by synthetic opioids.
“This was simply a risk mitigation decision to protect our employees (and) their family members that may come in contact with their uniforms and the citizens that may accidentally be exposed to fentanyl during an attempted roadside test,” State Police Superintendent Travis Hampton told Oregon Live.
The Drug Enforcement Administration issued new guidance to police departments across the country in June on how to handle heroin and other narcotics due to the increasing prevalence of fentanyl. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein warned that it only takes two milligrams of fentanyl, “the equivalent of a few grains of table salt,” to cause a fatal overdose.
Opioid overdoses made up a staggering 66 percent of all drug overdose deaths in 2016, surpassing the annual number of lives lost to breast cancer.
The epidemic is contributing to declining life expectancy in the U.S. Life expectancy dropped for the second consecutive year in 2016 for the first time since an outbreak of influenza in 1962 and 1963, officials say.
President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a “public health emergency” Oct. 26, giving states hit hard by opioid addiction flexibility on how they direct federal resources to combat rising drug deaths.
Nationally, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under age 50, killing 63,600 people in 2016.
Data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse released Sept. 7 predicts that the addiction epidemic in America will continue to deteriorate, pushing drug deaths to an estimated 71,600 in 2017. If the estimates prove accurate, 2017 will be the second year in a row that drug deaths surpass U.S. casualties from the Vietnam War.
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