Oregon Police abolish roadside drug tests for fear of accidental fentanyl exposure

The termination of the standard practice has vast implications for drug possession cases.

Jan 26, 2018
Fentanyl

A woman suspected of acting under the influence of heroine shows her arms to Huntington Police Officer Dakota Dishman on April 19, 2017 in Huntington, West Virginia. Huntington, the city in the northwest corner of West Virginia, bordering Kentucky, has been portrayed as the epicenter of the opioid crisis. On August 15, 2016, from 3:00 pm to 9:00 pm, 28 people in the city overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid far more powerful and dangerous than heroin. The economic incentives are powerful: one kilogram of fentanyl costs $5,000, which can make a million tablets sold at $20 each for a gain of $20 million. ‘This epidemic doesn’t discriminate,’ Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said. ‘Our youngest overdose was 12 years old. The oldest was 77.’ / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski / TO GO WITH AFP STORY by Heather SCOTT, US-health-drugs-WestVirginia (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Across North America, cities are struggling to gain control over an addiction crisis. Spurred on by a decade of potent painkillers like Oxycontin, the United States are facing drug abuse on an unparalleled level and a federal administration sluggish to address it. In Oregon, state police have decided that some opioids have become so dangerous that officers shouldn’t be asked to handle them.

Of the opioids hemorrhaging through the country, fentanyl is the most infamous. Originally used an anesthetic for surgeries, a lot of fentanyl is being cut into cocaine, which is why many unsuspecting users have been overdosing the last few years. Fentanyl even has its own breed of tall tales, the most alarming of which is that you can overdose simply by absorbing through the skin. Last year Arkansas police sparked a small panic by saying grocery store shoppers could die if they come into contact with fentanyl on a shopping cart, a statement they later retracted.

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Huntington Police Officer Dakota Dishman searches the belongings of a woman who was suspected of acting under the influence of heroine on April 19, 2017 in Huntington, West Virginia. Huntington, the city in the northwest corner of West Virginia, bordering Kentucky, has been portrayed as the epicenter of the opioid crisis. On August 15, 2016, from 3:00 pm to 9:00 pm, 28 people in the city overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid far more powerful and dangerous than heroin. The economic incentives are powerful: one kilogram of fentanyl costs $5,000, which can make a million tablets sold at $20 each for a gain of $20 million. ‘This epidemic doesn’t discriminate,’ Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said. ‘Our youngest overdose was 12 years old. The oldest was 77.’ / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski / TO GO WITH AFP STORY by Heather SCOTT, US-health-drugs-WestVirginia (Photo credit by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Coming into contact with fentanyl should warrant caution, however. It can’t kill anyone on contact, but it can hide on fingers or fabrics that end up on the mouth, nose or eyes. Last year an Ohio cop experienced an overdose after some fentanyl lingered on his uniform after a bust. While nothing has happened in Oregon so far, stories like these are enough to take greater precaution. Patrolling officers will no longer perform on-site drug examinations for fentanyl, instead sending all incriminating evidence to the drug lab to be processed.

Oregon has been suffering from the opioid crisis much like the rest of the country. In 2015, the state had two fentanyl overdose deaths, which skyrocketed to 58 last year. If an officer suspects someone is handling fentanyl, they could use a palm-sized test kit which would allow for instant answers but also risk exposure. Drug labs will be safer, but also take much longer, stretching even small infractions weeks or months longer.

“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 The Oregonian in an email.

Jan 26, 2018