The heroin being found at overdose scenes in Harford County is no longer being tested in the field – on the street, along the side of the road or in the precinct - because of the potential danger it poses to deputies handling it, the commander of the Harford County Task Force said this week.
Those same dangers are also requiring that Harford County Sheriff's deputies carry a stronger antidote to counteract the effects of the more potent drugs.
Every sample of heroin or synthetic opoiod is tested by trained detectives at one facility that has an air filtration system, according to Capt. Lee Dunbar, commander of the task force.
While one deputy from the narcotics division is testing the drug, "a narcotics detective is with him with multiple doses of Narcan in case they'd have an accidental exposure," Dunbar said.
With the increasing presence of fentanyl mixed in Harford's heroin, and knowing the even more potent carfentanil will show up at some point, the Harford County Sheriff's Office is taking extra precautions to protect the deputies who are handling the ever-increasingly dangerous substances, Dunbar said.
"It's strictly because of safety," he said. "We don't want our deputies, or any officer around the county, that are first responders on the scene to be field testing in an open environment."
A bit of carfentanil the size of a grain of salt can kill someone, Dunbar said, if it's airborne and becomes ingested.
"It poses a huge health risk," he said.
The first carfentail deaths have been reported in Maryland, although none so far in Harford, according to Dunbar.
The drugs are put into double-sealed bags when they're seized, and the people who are handling them are wearing double gloves and masks over their faces, he said.
The drugs detectives are working with – which they often don't know exactly what they are – can be absorbed through the skin, if they come into contact with them, and the handler can go into cardiac arrest, Dunbar said.
No accidental exposures have been reported by the task force, he said.
It's just one of the increasing dangers of the drugs being used in Harford County, he said.
More potent drugs have also necessitated the sheriff's office's switch to a more powerful antidote.
In 2015, all Harford sheriff's deputies began carrying Narcan, which counters the effects of a heroin overdose.
Until recently, each deputy carried two, one-ounce doses that, with multiple parts, were complex and time-consuming to put together before they could be administered through the nose, Capt. Carl Brooks, commander of the planning and research division, said Monday.
Because the Sheriff's Office was having to administer more than one dose of Narcan to counter the more potent effects of heroin mixed with fentanyl, deputies recently began carrying two doses of four ounces each that are much easier to administer, Brooks said.
When Narcan is needed, deputies are responding to life and death situations, Maj. John Simpson said, and they no longer have to put all the parts together while running to a scene. The new doses are nasal inhalers, already put together squirted up through the nose.
"You open the pack and squeeze," Brooks said.
The Sheriff's Office has 200 kits (two doses each) and will get another 200 kits early this summer, Brooks said. The kits are good for 16 to 20 months, and the sheriff's office is using an average of one kit per day.
Each kit of two doses costs $75, Brooks said.
While some Harford residents may balk at the expense, Simpson said it's necessary.
"You do have a success rate," Simpson said. "You're offering the opportunity for folks to modify their behavior."
Deputies are using Narcan at a rate of about one kit per day, Brooks said.
Fatal overdoses increase
In the first three months of 2017, 22 people died of heroin overdoses in Harford County. There also have been 106 non-fatal overdoses. In the same period last year, seven had died of overdoses.
"That's up more than 200 percent," Dunbar said.
The task force has gotten toxicology reports back from the medical examiner's office on 17 of the 22 fatal overdoses, and all of them have contained fentanyl, Dunbar said. One of the overdoses was on straight fentanyl, without any heroin mixed in.
The increasing number of overdoses is taxing to law enforcement's manpower to investigate each overdose, Dunbar said.
"That is our priority, investigation, but it's also our most manpower-taxing," he said. "We investigate an overdose like we do a homicide or manslaughter case, with the ultimate goal of charging someone in the death of a victim."
The number of investigations continues to increase "exponentially," Dunbar said, but the task force doesn't have any more deputies to do them.
"Something's got to give, and what's got to give is more deputies," he said. "We need funding from the county to bring in more investigators, to target these dealers and drug-trafficking organizations. To be able to do that, you can't have heroin cases going up 225 percent and still have the same number of deputies doing the work."
The Chinese government recently banned the manufacture and sale of fentanyl, which Dunbar said could have an effect on the drug trade here.
"That doesn't mean the bad guys won't stop sending it, but we'll have to let it play out over the next few months to see if it starts trending that way," he said.
As the use of fentanyl continues to rise, Dunbar said evidence shows addicts will be using drugs with more increasing amounts of fentanyl and less heroin.
"Evidence shows it's going that way. Whether it will top to all fentanyl and no heroin market, it's too early to tell," he said.
Locally, he said, most people still assume they're buying heroin, and most know the heroin is being cut with fentanyl. In other regions, the northeast parts of the country, law enforcement reports organizations selling strictly fentanyl and addicts know what they're getting.
The task force is still awaiting the arrival of carfentanil in the heroin used in Harford.
"We fully anticipate to see it in Harford. It's a matter of when, not if," Dunbar said. "When that's going to be, we don't know."
It could, however, be coming sooner, rather than later. Two people in Anne Arundel County and one person from Frederick County died of overdoses from carfentanil in the last few weeks, Dunbar said.
The synthetic opoiod, known as an elephant tranquilizer, is 100 times deadlier than fentanyl, which is 50 times deadlier than heroin.
Anne Arundel County, Dunbar said, could be dealing with a drug-trafficking organization that uses carfentanil, while the organizations selling in Harford may not be yet.
"But we anticipate because it's being sourced out of Baltimore City, we will likely see it here in Harford County," Dunbar said.