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How the dangers of fentanyl affect Montana's first responders

fentanyl testing
Posted at 2:47 PM, Apr 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-06 17:02:59-04

MISSOULA - We know the drug fentanyl is dangerous -- and deadly. But it’s not just the user who is at risk.

So are the law enforcement and medical professionals - and even the crime lab scientists - who are trying to get it off the streets.

Since it takes just a small amount of fentanyl to cause an overdose, anyone who comes in contact with fentanyl, or near-contact, must take extra precautions, so they don't become victims of this powerful synthetic painkiller.

New canine officers are finding drugs being smuggled into Montana on the interstates and highways.

"Harry" recently detected 13 pounds of methamphetamine and 1,000 fentanyl pills in a car stopped on the interstate.

But even as law enforcement takes extra steps to protect themselves from this deadly drug, they are facing an uphill battle.

MHP, Montana AG discuss dangers of fentanyl

“There’s a cartel connection to the state of Montana. Law enforcement is aware of this, and it makes our job ever more dangerous,” noted Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Jay Nelson.

“We know that it’s becoming increasingly easy for your local dealer to make a direct and get a shipment of fentanyl coming up here,” added Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen.

“There’s no more middleman in this drug trade which is an interesting wrinkle that’s just kind of developing," Knudsen continued.

At the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula, they test confiscated drugs. They're usually so poorly made, the user doesn’t even know what's in it, even a lethal dose of fentanyl. But it doesn’t seem to matter.

“Seizures have been up from 2020 to 2021. We saw about a 500% increase in case admissions. And already for this year in 2022, we’re seeing almost double of what we saw last year," observed Travis Doria, a forensic scientist at the lab.

“We’ve taken many safety precautions to protect ourselves, we’re sure to wear the proper protective equipment that we need like lab coats and gloves and goggles when necessary and that’s because the amount of fentanyl you need to overdose is so low, it can be less than two milligrams -- which is about 5/hundredth the weight of a penny. So, a very, very small amount can cause an overdose," Doria continued.

Security cameras and other scientists must keep an eye on those testing these hard-core drugs in case of an accidental exposure. One of the ingredients in a certain kind of fentanyl is actually an elephant tranquilizer. So, there’s Narcan at the ready — in the lab and in patrol vehicles, too.

“The reason why we carry this Narcan is truly -- if I'm with a partner and looking inside of a vehicle, one of us could go down with -- literally just the tip of a pin is enough fentanyl to cause an overdose,” Nelson said. “And we are watching each other’s back to be able to administer this Narcan. I’ve seen it firsthand with the public. It will literally take someone who looks deceased and reverse that drug interaction.”

Just over five pounds of fentanyl was seized last year -- enough raw fentanyl to kill more than the population of Montana. That's a 1,224% increase over the 0.38 pounds seized in 2020. Meanwhile, the number of pills or capsules increased 88-fold -- from 393 seized in 2020 to 34,745 last year.

Knudsen worked to get resources out to assist law enforcement including additional narcotics agents from the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation and drug-detecting K9s. He has also called for legislation to make it harder to get the ingredients from China and border policies that make it harder to smuggle the drug into the United States from Mexico.

It's an illicit industry that's adding another element of danger to those trying to fight back.

“I think every law enforcement officer in Montana is aware we’re dealing with a huge spike in drug problems and we’re dealing with the huge spike in the violence that comes with it. And they’re concerned, they’re definitely concerned," Kundsen concluded.