DEA Agent Warns That a Single Fake Pill Containing Fentanyl Can Be a Death Sentence

DEA Special Agent in Charge Daniel R. Salter

This editorial by Daniel R. Salter was published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on July 28, 2017. Mr. Salter is a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and is Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta Field Division.

Fentanyl can be a one-pill Ga. death sentence

As a 30-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration, I’ve seen drugs destroy communities nationwide. Fentanyl abuse is as bad as I have seen and it is devastating communities all across this great Nation.

A synthetic opioid, fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine. A person can die from ingesting one granule the size of a flake of sea salt. Just this June, a new strain of fentanyl claimed the lives of four Georgia residents and hospitalized more than 30.

Fentanyl impacts everyone, not just those who abuse it. It emotionally destroys users’ families and physically threatens first responders. The costs associated with prevention and enforcement take a heavy toll on police department budgets and taxpayers.

The fentanyl crisis, in Georgia and across the nation, is growing more severe. Before they can reverse the crisis, Americans first must understand that, when abused, fentanyl can be deadly.

One reason fentanyl is so deadly is that it is often mixed with other drugs. In the case of the June overdoses, dealers disguised the synthetic drug as far less potent Percocet painkillers. Fentanyl’s white, powdered appearance makes it easy to combine with cocaine or heroin, too. Seeing that a lethal dose of fentanyl is just one-third that of heroin, this visual similarity can be deadly.

Fentanyl deaths are skyrocketing. From 2014 to 2015, the latest years for which state-level data is available, Georgia saw a 65 percent increase in synthetic opioid overdose deaths. We’re primed to experience another increase this year and that is not a statistic to be proud of.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has discovered two new strains of fentanyl — acrylfentanyl and tetrahydrofuran — both of which are resistant to the overdose-reversal drug, naloxone. Naloxone used to be a miracle drug — just one quick injection could revive an overdose patient. Between 1996 and 2010, it saved 10,000 people from overdose deaths.

How did these deadly strains get into Georgia? Likely from China.

Illicit drug labs in the communist nation produce and export much of the world’s illegal fentanyl. In addition to shipping pure fentanyl, China also exports pill presses to the United States, enabling illegal mills to produce 3,000 to 5,000 fentanyl pills per hour.

Fentanyl isn’t just a threat to civilians – it’s a threat to law enforcement as well. Because fentanyl can be absorbed through skin and air, law enforcement officers must exercise extreme caution when handling it in the field.

Fentanyl has already compromised the safety of several Georgia officers. In late June, at least a gallon of the substance spilled out of its packaging while two officers transported it from the Georgia Bureau of Investigations Crime Lab to the Duluth Police Department. The officers had to be disinfected immediately and the area quarantined.

Because even small amounts of fentanyl can cause overdoses, law enforcement has overhauled its safety protocols. First responders can no longer field test any suspicious substance — they have to send it back to a crime lab for testing. They can’t even scoop it into a bag for fear it may contain fentanyl. If it does, and the substance is accidentally airborne, anyone who ingests it could die. Level A hazmat suits, the same ones used to assist Ebola patients, have become standard pieces of equipment.

These protections aren’t cheap. Level A hazmat suits can cost more than $1,300 each. Each shot of naloxone costs more than $15. It can take up to six doses to resuscitate some overdose victims. And dozens of people overdose each day.

Fentanyl is driving one of the most horrific drug epidemics I’ve seen in my three-decade career in law enforcement. Everyone — from regular civilians to cops — must first understand how deadly and devastating the abuse of fentanyl can be to our society. DEA and our law enforcement partners are committed to ensuring the safety and security of citizens and thwarting the throes of death caused by the abuse of fentanyl.