News 12 Investigates: Policing Opioids

Published: Sep. 21, 2017 at 6:22 PM EDT
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Thursday, September 21, 2017

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - There is an enemy so dangerous it's killing tens of thousands of Americans a year. The enemy? Heroin, pain pills, and synthetic opioids. Policing opioids is a growing challenge for law enforcement with limited resources.

In a lab, 143 miles from Augusta technicians carefully test tiny particles of white powder. "This is by far the scariest drug trend that we have ever seen. There used to be a day when you could look at something and say based on my training and experience say it's probably this but those days are gone," Nelly Miles with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations said.

Law enforcement agencies from across the state send confiscated drugs to Atlanta for testing. "You don't know what you are working with and if it somehow comes out of it's an opportunity for exposure," Miles said.

Fentanyl, Carephental and the other synthetic cousins of heroin are the most dangerous drugs coming through the lab. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Carphental, an elephant tranquilizer, is a hundred times stronger. The GBI blames synthetic opioids for at least a dozen overdoses and four deaths in middle Georgia this summer.

The caseload is overwhelming. "Just here, out of the lab in Atlanta, about 7000 cases are in the backlog so what we have to do internally is prioritize the cases," she said.

Case number: 56114, 143 miles East on I-20, a packet arrives at the Richmond County Sheriff's Office. "We had one sample come in we tested it and it came up as meth and came back from crime lab it was actually Fentanyl," Lt. Allan Rollins said.

A particle of Fentanyl, smaller than the size of a snowflake, can kill simply by touching it. Deputies found that in February. They confiscated an even bigger stash, possibly 1500 pills later. The case is still awaiting assignment at the GBI lab.

The Richmond County Deputies have seized more than 2600 hydrocodone pills, nearly 9000 oxycodine pills and 165 grams of heroin, all opioids, so far this year.

More than three-dozen people died in the county of suspected opioid overdoses last year.

Liz Owens: "Is there an opioid problem in Richmond County?"

Lt. Allan Rollins: "Yes, we have a problem here and it's something we are addressing."

The agency is beginning to address it with getting the lifesaving opioid-reversing drug Narcan. Narcan can save the life of a drug user and it can also save the life of a deputy in an accidental opioid exposure. "The old days when you could go over and just pick it up those days are gone. Simply handling it will kill you now," said Lt. Rollins.

Synthetic opioids like Fentanyl require more doses of Narcan than a typical heroin overdose because of its potency. But right now, Narcan isn't in the budget for Richmond County Sheriff's office. EMS does carry it. They've administered 183 doses so far this year. Columbia County and Aiken County Sheriff's Offices don't carry Narcan either.

"This isn't something that's being over dramatized. We have the bodies stacked to prove it, unfortunately," Miles said. At least a quarter of the overdose victims that end up in the GBI's morgue are there because of Fentanyl. "When you are dealing with drugs that are so dangerous it becomes a very important issue with the public to know what's out there."

"This is a pretty good scare and I am hoping anybody that is thinking about dealing with these kinds of people and dealing under the table and not with a true pharmacy and not with a true doctor that you think hard before considering taking these drugs," Lt. Rollins said.

Richmond, Columbia and Aiken County Sheriff's Offices are working towards getting Narcan but there are budget and training concerns.