QUANTICO, Va. — A few days before the Sept. 18 start of Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week, Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson attended a federal “diversion opioid” training.
The sheriff was one of 50 law officers, one from each state, invited to attend the one-day session held at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Training Academy here.
“It was fantastic,” the sheriff said, “some of the best training I’ve ever been to. It was so professionally done. They didn’t waste a minute.”
The focus of the training regarded fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid.
“Fentanyl has really become a huge deal,” Atkinson said, “It is ridiculously cheap,” and is increasingly diverted from its intended pharmaceutical purpose and used on the street to cut other drugs such as heroin or homemade pills.
“It’s made with a legal intent and winds up in the wrong hands,” the sheriff said.
At the training session, Atkinson learned that fentanyl is sold out of China for about $4,500 per kilogram (2.2 pounds).
A kilogram is 1,000 grams, and each gram can make a thousand 1 mg doses. So a kilo can make one million pills. At the street price of $10 per pill, that generates a revenue of $10 million with only $4,500 spent.
Amplifying the seriousness of the problem is, he explained, “it is such a lethal drug” and can be inhaled or ingested through the skin.
To illustrate this point, Atkinson said DEA instructors compared a packet of artificial sweetener, which weighs about one gram, with a “little speck a little bigger than the head of a pin,” representing one mg of the drug.
“One quarter of that is a lethal dose,” the sheriff said.
Atkinson said fentanyl is 50 percent more potent than heroin and 100 percent more potent than morphine.
This puts not only users at an increase risk of overdose, but officers who come into contact with such substances.
“The powder can very easily become airborne, and ingested by touching,” Atkinson said. “With other drugs, such as cocaine, that’s not a big threat.”
In a video released Monday by the U.S. Department of Justice, two officers shared their experience when they inadvertently inhaled near-lethal doses of fentanyl when packaging evidence following a raid.
“In the process of sealing the bag, just out of force of habit, I grabbed the bag and I closed it up, forcing the air out of it, so I’d get a good seal. And when I did that, a bunch of it poofed up into the air, right up into our face, and we ended up inhaling it,” D. Kallen, an investigator from Atlantic County, New Jersey, states in the video.
“I thought that was it,” said E. Price, the other detective affected. “I thought I was dying.”
Though no specific policies have been established, “What we’re going to have to do is be much more careful when we’re handling things,” Atkinson said, noting that the DEA recommended agencies use a “Level Three response, total HAZMAT.”
Currently no field text exists to let officers know what they are dealing with, and substances will have to be tested at the lab.
Deputies, Mount Airy police officers and emergency personnel are equipped with naloxone, which reverses the effects of opioid medication and can block an overdose.
Atkinson – who noted that he paid to attend the training out-of-pocket – said the first step for him will be to spread awareness within his and other local agencies and with the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, of which he serves as president.
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.