NADDI Director Warns About the Fentanyl Threat

Charlie Cichon, speaking at PSM's 2010 Interchange

Charlie Cichon's editorial was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on October 15, 2017. Cichon is the Executive Director of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, which will be holding its annual meeting in Pittsburgh this week.

A Wider Drug Threat: Don’t Be Numb To The Effects Of Pennsylvania’s Opioid Crisis

Eighteen SWAT team members recently raided a Pittsburgh home, aiming to confiscate bags of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, and arrest its dealers. During the raid, the team knocked over a table covered with the drug, sending a plume of it into the air.

Simply by breathing the infected air, the SWAT team members became dizzy and numb — the first signs of overdose.

The current crop of opioids circulating Pennsylvania’s streets poses an unprecedented threat — not just to drug abusers but to anyone who comes into contact with the substances. Lawmakers must curb the crisis to protect ordinary citizens and law enforcement officials from harm. The annual meeting of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, to be held in Pittsburgh from Oct. 17-20, is the perfect place and time to develop strategies to do so.

At 40 to 50 times the strength of street heroin — and up to 100 times stronger than morphine — fentanyl is largely responsible for the recent surge in opioid fatalities in our state. Last year, the drug surpassed heroin as the leading cause of overdose deaths among Pennsylvanians. Nearly 2,400 people in the Keystone State died from a fentanyl overdose in 2016 — more than double the number from the previous year.

Nationally, the statistics are similarly bleak. Deaths from synthetic opioids exceeded 20,000 last year.

One needn’t ingest fentanyl to be at risk of overdose, as the Pittsburgh SWAT raid makes clear. As another example, an Ohio police officer nearly died from an overdose after brushing some stray fentanyl powder off of his shirt following an arrest.

The threat of accidental overdose is so serious that the Dauphin County police are taking steps to limit officers’ exposure to fentanyl. The department no longer allows police to test substances in the field. Instead, police must send all suspected drugs immediately to the Pennsylvania State Police lab for testing.

But law enforcement officials aren’t the only ones endangered by the drug. Since a 3 milligram dose of fentanyl — just a tiny pinch of powder — could prove fatal, anyone who comes in contact with the drug puts their health at risk. Carfentanyl is even stronger: a minute amount measured in picograms, one-trillionth of a gram, is fatal.

The likelihood that ordinary Pennsylvanians will encounter the drug is increasing, too. Large quantities of illegal fentanyl are flooding into the country from abroad. In September, 29 bags of pure fentanyl were found in the parking lot of St. Bernadette of Lourdes elementary school in Drexel Hill, where parents were picking up their children from kindergarten. Imagine the horror that would have ensued had a child opened up one of the bags and released the lethal substance into the air.

Counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl also are putting lives in danger. These pills — which often purposefully resemble drugs such as Percocet or Xanax — have been found in 40 states, including Pennsylvania.

This summer, a Bucks County woman was sentenced to up to 18 years in jail for selling counterfeit Percocet laced with fentanyl. She continued selling them even after two of her customers died of overdoses.

Luckily, Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey have taken steps to protect Pennsylvanians from this destructive substance. Last year, for example, Mr. Toomey introduced the Blocking Deadly Fentanyl Imports Act. It would impose economic penalties on fentanyl-exporting countries that refuse to help the United States control the drug.

Both lawmakers also voted against Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) bill to lift the ban on foreign prescription drug importation. That reform would have made it harder for regulators to keep counterfeit pills out of the nation’s drug supply, at a time when fentanyl-laced fakes are fueling a public-health crisis.

These actions are moving the debate in the right direction. But a large-scale effort is needed to curb this epidemic. To that end, the NADDI annual meeting this week could generate the vigorous statewide effort this issue demands.

Synthetic opioids aren’t just a threat to drug abusers, but to all citizens. Too many Pennsylvanians have already lost their lives to fentanyl. And for every day that leaders fail to act, the death count only will rise.