By Jaimie Julia Winters
Fentanyl, an opioid prescribed only for those in the last stages of chronic illnesses due its high rate of addictiveness, is now being sold on the street and killing people at an alarming rate in New Jersey.
Mixed with heroin and then injected or snorted by addicts hoping to reach a new dangerous, life-threatening high, fentanyl is linked to 44 percent of overdose deaths. And it’s so deadly, police are changing how they respond to reports of suspected overdoses or drug busts.
Street fentanyl, known as Goodfella, Murder 8 or Jackpot and coming out of Mexico and China, has been linked to an increasing number of overdose deaths. In Essex County, there were 90 reported fentanyl-related deaths in 2016, up from just 13 two years prior. In Montclair alone, 10 people died due to overdoses from all drugs in 2017, up from four in 2016.
Addicts are always looking for a stronger, higher high and the strongest drug they can get their hands on, said Sgt. Charles Cunningham, the head of Montclair Police’s narcotics department.
“It’s called ‘chasing the dragon’,” Cunningham said. Chasing the dragon refers to an addict’s desire to feel their first “perfect” high. As they build up a tolerance to the drug and their intoxication lessens, they look for another drug to replicate that first high.
“That’s the danger,” Cunningham said. “Fentanyl is so strong, what could possibly be next?”
How strong is fentanyl? It’s 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin, according to the CDC. When police administer naloxone — commonly known by the brand name of Narcan — for the emergency treatment of a known or suspected opioid overdose, they are more likely to have to give two doses when fentanyl is involved, according to the CDC.
It’s so strong that it’s measured by the millionth of a gram. A few grains of fentanyl can be lethal. Its powerful form makes it easily ingested, inhaled and absorbed through the mucous membranes, so much so that two Atlantic County police officers accidentally ingested street fentanyl and became dangerously high while bagging the evidence at a drug bust.
A police dog assisting in a Florida drug raid died after absorbing it.
“It could be airborne and you wouldn’t even know it,” Cunningham said. “Unintentional exposure can make you high or worse.”
Due to the rise in illegal production of fentanyl, and the dangers it poses to both users and law enforcement, in 2014 New Jersey forensic labs began testing for it in confiscated drugs and toxicology screenings began testing for the drug.
Montclair law enforcement is now seeing it making its way into the area and onto the streets of Paterson, Newark and East Orange, and with it an increase in fentanyl-related deaths.
Following the fentanyl-related overdose death of a man in Montclair, the investigation led to a home in East Orange where a search warrant was issued last July. The result was the seizure of a bag of fentanyl that police weighed at 34.5 grams.
“It’s the first time I had seen it not mixed with heroin and not packaged in glassine envelopes,” said Cunningham.
Police were not exposed to the drug that day, Cunningham said, but the MPD is now prepared with heavy duty gloves and masks when responding to drug-related incidents.
Cunningham said police are seeing a rise in fentanyl drug seizures as well. In 2014, Essex County confiscated 1,048 glassine bags or single dosage baggies that tested for fentanyl. In 2017, 29,162 glassines confiscated by Essex County police contained fentanyl.
The Department of Drug Enforcement is now warning police to not to handle fentanyl directly at all. Instead of field testing, police are instructed to let a lab do the testing to avoid exposure.
Montclair’s new drug recognition officer
The opioid epidemic has also taken to the roadways of Montclair. Two weeks ago, police responded to man passed out in his car on Bellevue Avenue and Upper Mountain Avenue at 4 p.m. The man had overdosed, Cunningham said. Police administered Narcan and the man was saved. Drug paraphernalia was found in the vehicle.
When officers make a motor vehicle stop or respond to an accident and the driver seems under the influence, the only immediate test available is for alcohol. With the rise of opioid prescription drugs and medical marijuana use, many times alcohol is not involved, but the driver is obviously on something, said Elisa Arnaldy, Montclair’s new Drug Recognition Officer.
Drug testing done through urine analysis takes days. Now, Arnaldy will be called in immediately following an arrest or to scenes of accidents to determine if the driver is under the influence of drugs such as opioids, inhalants, PCP, narcotics, hallucinates or marijuana. Through a 12-step process testing eye reflexes, attention span, blood pressure, heart rate and more, Arnaldy will be able to give a report on the driver’s condition and identifying the category or categories of drugs causing the impairment.
“People obtaining prescriptions through their doctors like Ambien and being prescribed medical marijuana should not be driving while under the influence of these drugs,” she said. “They may be legally prescribed, but people should know the dangers of operating a motor vehicle while using them.”
Arnaldy’s experience, skills and training will be a positive step in addressing this problem within the community, said Montclair Police Chief Todd Conforti.
Part of the problem with opioids is their availability in homes, kept in medicine cabinets and then taken and used by someone who the drug wasn’t prescribed for, Cunningham said. He recommends disposing of unused prescription drugs at the drop box at police headquarters.
What has helped
The number of overdose deaths could be worse, experts say. The Good Samaritan Law passed in 2013 provides legal protection for those who call 911 to report an overdose. Prior to the law, many feared arrest when reporting an apparent overdose and lives were lost.
In 1971, the US Food and Drug Administration approved naloxone for treating opiate overdoses by a nasal mist or injection. But it wasn’t until 2014 that police and EMT responders began carrying it and administering when responding to drug overdoses. The New Jersey State Police reported the use of naloxone has tripled in New Jersey since responders began carrying. Schools are now required to train nurses on how to use naloxone and have it on campus. The surgeon general recommends that family and friends of a drug user have it on hand.
In 2016, Montclair used naloxone seven times. Last year, police deployed it 15 times. This year, Montclair police has only had three deployments, and one overdose resulting in death, according to Cunningham.
Cunningham’s team of three narcotic detectives investigate every death by overdose.
“We owe it to the families,” he said.
The crisis hits home for the Montclair sergeant, whose brother-in-law died from an overdose in 2015. Thus, Cunningham’s approach involves respect and compassion. Addiction is disease of the brain and the disease can take over anyone’s life, he said.
When detectives launch their investigation, they are looking for the dealers, which many times lead to search warrants of suspected drug dealers in Newark, East Orange and Paterson. In three out of every four search warrants issued through Montclair for drugs, guns are seized as well.
“We are hoping to incarcerate the bad guys; the ones who put the drugs on the streets. Most of the time that winds up with the seizure of guns too,” Cunningham said.
Treatment over incarceration
The new bail reform, in which judges can now order defendants released on their own recognizance with no bail, is also playing into the opioid problem. People arrested on drug-related charges are back on the streets, sometimes within hours, and using again. Both Essex County and Montclair police have reported cases in which they have saved an overdose victim with naloxone only to have them overdose again within 24 hours after release from the hospital, Cunningham said.
After police relayed similar stories of arresting the same offenders over and over again, many counties started up options for treatment rather than incarceration.
The county now allows drug court judges to offer to nonviolent drug offenders enrollment into a program of treatment, counseling and supervision instead of going to prison.