Deadly Synthetic Opioids, Fentanyl, are Worsening into an Epidemic

Author: Alex Hosko, University of Mississippi

The United States, along with neighboring Canada, is currently experiencing an opioid crisis of an astronomical level. The illicit consumption and sale of opioids such as heroin and prescription pain-killers, including Hydrocodone and OxyContin has broken a new threshold causing policy makers to call for the death penalty for anyone convicted of distributing such substances. Since the turn of the millennium the United States has seen a 200% rise in overdose deaths at the hands of opioids and the numbers are continuing to increase . Research speculation has proven that fentanyl, more specifically illicit fentanyl, is the deadly substance behind this increase of overdoses. Illicit fentanyl was detected in 56.3% of all overdoses in the 10 states that fall under the CDC’s “Enhanced Opioid Surveillance Program” and is present nationwide . As of February 7th, 2018 the DEA has emergency scheduled all forms of Illicit fentanyl in hopes of reducing overdose deaths .

Fentanyl was originally synthesized back in the 1960’s by Belgium chemist, Paul Janssen. It was a revolutionary compound for its time due to its potency that ranges 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Its analgesic, transdermal, and potent abilities help in its prescription to patients with pain from surgery, chronic pain, and tolerance of other substances. It is prescribed in forms such as transdermal patches and even “lollipops” under multiple pharmaceutical names such as Actiq or Duragesic. Clandestine forms and analogues of the compound began to reach the illicit market in the United States in the 1970’s and many new chemical arrangements have been produced under street names such as China White, Goodfella, and TNT .

The pharmacological capabilities and physical appearance of this dangerous substance and its many analogues have created problems for first responders nation wide. Over the past few years fentanyl has been a common adulterant of heroin and more recently it has been appearing in certain deaths related to cocaine. This past December, three Baltimore County police officers became physically ill after possessing a white powdered substance during an arrest. The incident caused the entire percent to be evacuated and all three officers survived the incident. After analysis was taken of the white powder substance, it was found out that it did in fact contain fentanyl and the symptoms came from just minor exposure .

The DEA and other state and federal agencies have proposed ways to keep first responsers safe and educate them on the signs of fentanyl contamination. Multiple levels of Personal Protection Equipment kits have been introduced, and first responders are trained on what “basics” they should always have on the scene . Another way to keep first responders safe is through a positive identification of fentanyl contaminating unknown compounds or other illicit drugs they may seize. A tenured way of doing this for illicit drugs is by employing Presumptive Tests for a quick, crime scene answer. Usually colorimetric, a presumptive test will turn a certain color if a compound is present or even if it is not present . These tests are usually followed up by laboratory confirmatory tests to actually confirm the presence of a compound for a legal procedure.

Colorimetric tests do come with some problems, comparing the color created to a standard chart can create confusion in how the color perceived and unknown compound is translated. Another common problem is false positive occurring in the tests reaction. To combat these problems, many companies are focusing on creating presumptive tests that will positively identify the presence of fentanyl and keep first responders safe nationwide. The companies that are currently creating products used by law enforcement are DetectaChem LLC., Sirchie Acquisition Company, LLC., Mistral Security, Inc., and Field Forensics, Inc.

The company to truly focus on due to their advancement in the presumptive methods is DetectaChem. The Texas based company has introduced Automated Colorimetric testing to prevent false positives and human error. Their [MDT] Multi Drug Detection Test, and Opiate Mobile Detection pouch offer a reliable colorimetric identification that comes in seconds. The pouches come with a removable sample swab that helps the test analyze both bulk and non-visible trace samples. The swabs are then inserted halfway into the pouch, the pouch is crushed releasing their proprietary reagent, and the swab is inserted fully reacting the contents. Their automated colormetric technology comes in the form of a free app that can be downloaded on either an Apple or Android platform. The application scans the QR code, and the program algorithmically does the work to identify the unknown from standardized color charts already programmed into the application. The technology also builds, shares, logs, and saves previous tests to help law enforcement with future investigations. The application also comes with guided video instructions to prevent errors occurring during the analysis .

I was lucky enough to have a phone interview with their president, Travis Kisner, and he explained to me that their tests, the Multi Drug Test [MDT] with Fentanyl ID, is much more advanced and reliable due to the fact there needs to be a positive hit with their reagent twice in their test for a positive identification of fentanyl to occur. Their MDT with Fentanyl ID test can also detect a wide range of other narcotics such as Heroin, Cocaine, Methamphetamine, MDMA, and detect a presence of fentanyl down to 1% in the sample. This process cuts down of false positives to give first responders a much better control over the situation and how to handle it .

In conclusion, the opioid crisis the nation is feeling will not be beaten through the use of presumptive methods, but they will help keep first responders safe. It is on the government to change the way it views addicts and other more natural substances (such as cannabis) to cut down on the overdose deaths. Illicit science will always keep evolving, it is up to policy to prevent it from reaching new heights.

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