After one of his officers accidentally overdosed during a search and seizure, the police chief of the opioid-besieged town of East Liverpool, Ohio, is calling for stronger penalties for transporting fentanyl and related drugs, and his officers are no longer field testing what they find while on duty.
“It’s just too dangerous,” East Liverpool Police Chief John Lane told STAT on Tuesday. “It’s not worth the risk.”
It’s been eight months since the town’s opioid crisis made national news, and Lane said very little has changed. Patrolman Chris Green collapsed on Friday after brushing a small amount of white powder from his shirt hours after a field test. The powder was suspected of being fentanyl, a powerful opioid that claimed the of lives of more than 1,600 people in Ohio in 2014 and 2015. Green was given the anti-opiate Narcan, once at the station and several more times at a nearby hospital.
“I think it was a total of four doses,” said Lane, who visited Green at the hospital following the incident. “He was still out of it when I went in to see him.”
Overdose calls come in spurts, Lane said. A week will go by with none, and then a bunch will come in over the next several days. Because opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil are so potent and so deadly, Lane said he’d like to see the transport and sale of them to be considered a stronger crime.
“We’re starting to see more pure fentanyl. This stuff is incredibly dangerous. You just throw that in the air, people inhale it, and they’re going to die,” he said.
Last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration released a video warning law enforcement that even incidental contact with the drug could result in a fatal overdose. In Ohio, Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office has issued advisories telling officers to use extreme caution when handling opioids, including wearing gloves, glasses, and ventilation masks, and ensuring a proper seal on plastic bags.
Meanwhile, Green’s overdose has again focused attention on this Ohio River town, whose struggle to combat opioid trafficking has continued even as Ohio Governor John Kasich promised to help with the spiraling problem. Last September, media outlets from across the country wrote about the department’s decision to post on Facebook the photo of two adults who overdosed with a 4-year-old boy in the back seat of their car. The photo was meant to spur action, Lane said then. But the town still deals with a huge demand, and dealers coming from all over to meet it.
Lane said they want the ability to field test, but the latest incident underscores the dangers. Stronger penalties would be a better way to reduce the supply, “otherwise, they’re out the next day and right back on the street,” he said. “We have people coming in here from Chicago. It’s crazy.”