During the Oct. 26 Desperate Households conference sponsored by the Bartholomew County Substance Abuse Council, Capt. David Steinkoenig detailed just how dangerous working narcotics can be for investigators, when the substances being purchased and sold can not only kill by being injected, but also by being inhaled or even coating bare skin.

“Seven to eight years ago, needles were not a thing,” Steinkoenig said to those attending the conference, which included counselors and therapists working in drug recovery, teachers, social service agency representatives and local residents.

“The problem is, when we go to a house to do a search warrant, or when a person is being patted down, addicts don’t cap their needles,” he said. “We have learned you don’t stick your hand anywhere you can’t see.”

Uncapped needles have been found in jackets, socks, shirts — and in dresser drawers under clothing, he said.

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And now that heroin is being mixed with fentanyl, a powerful analgesic used in cancer treatment, the dangers have increased, Steinkoenig said.

“If you breathe fentanyl, it will affect you immediately,” he said. “You go down.”

No field tests by sheriff’s department

Steinkoenig suggested that Bartholomew County could lose one of its K-9s because of fentanyl, as the dogs are used to alert to narcotics in vehicles or homes and can’t discern whether that narcotic includes fentanyl. Naloxone can be used to revive a canine, but it is unknown how much might be needed depending on the contents of the heroin.It used to be when a deputy came across drugs on a suspect, he or she would take the substance and place it in a test kit to determine if it was heroin, Steinkoenig said.

“But we’ve stopped doing that because we can no longer field-test dope,” he said. “Now we look at it and say, that’s heroin. And if we’re not sure, we send it to the lab for the prosecutor to file charges later.”

The Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department has issued a temporary directive telling deputies not to field test suspicious narcotics in the field until the department has time to investigate the equipment and training to avoid injury due to fentanyl and other substance exposure, Chief Deputy Chris Lane said.

“We’re not going to ask deputies to open a bag of narcotics and risk exposure to fentanyl,” Steinkoenig said.

Lane said that lab testing has confirmed that fentanyl has been found in heroin confiscated by police agencies in Bartholomew County. A common misconception is that fentanyl is only found as a substance used to “cut” or mix with heroin, but it can also be found in cocaine and methamphetamine, he said.

As seizures of drugs involving fentanyl, or pounds of fentanyl by itself, have occurred in Indiana, Lane and Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers said they decided to issue the directive to protect deputies.

The department is continuing to make arrests for drug possession. But instead of field testing drugs, they are now sent to the Indiana State Police lab for identification, Myers said.

“I don’t want anyone to think that a drug dealer is getting a pass. We usually wait for the lab results from the lab before formal charges are filed, Lane said. “You can still make the arrest without a field test.”

The sheriff’s department is looking into equipment that scans drug samples through plastic or glass to determine what the substance is without having to open a container allowing contents to go airborne. Myers said the sheriff’s department is looking for grant money to pay for at least one of the scanners, which costs about $28,000.

Earlier this year, Steinkoenig said a SWAT team in Indianapolis went into a house and found a 2-pound bag of a packaged white powder in a freezer — where drugs are often kept. It was sent it to the Indiana State Police lab for testing, with field officers thinking it was methamphetamine.

When lab technicians opened the bag, they discovered it was 2 pounds of fentanyl and had to lock down and quarantine the lab until the substance could be cleared from the lab and the air inside, Steinkoenig said.

Many times when officers are sent on overdose calls, they find the addict passed out with the needle still in their arm, Steinkoenig said.

And now drug dealers are using the tainted heroin to entice addicts to try the fentanyl-laced product, saying it is good stuff — so good that users have to be brought back to consciousness with naloxone.

“It’s a selling point for dealers,” Steinkoenig said of the marketing pitch — a deadly one at that.

Many Indiana State Police troopers no longer carry field tests with them since any drugs they confiscate have to be sent to the state police lab anyway, said Sgt. Stephen Wheeles, spokesman for the Indiana State Police Versailles Post.

The state police have not had any formal policy change about field testing drugs, but troopers are taking all the precautions they can, Wheeles said. Some are wearing double sets of latex gloves if they field test, and others have simply stopped doing it and instead send the samples directly to the lab, he said.

“It’s up to the individual trooper whether to field test,” Wheeles said. “Since this stuff can absorb through the skin, and it would be sent to the lab anyway, some don’t field test.”

Columbus continues field testing

Columbus Police Department has concerns about fentanyl being combined with other illegal substances and has sent out information about its hazards to its officers, Police Chief Jon Rohde said.City officers are being asked to make a decision on a case-by-case basis on how to proceed in each case, keeping officer safety paramount, Rohde said.

But city officers are continuing to do tests on confiscated drugs in the field to develop probable cause in cases they are investigating, he said. Field tests are available for opioids such as heroin, methamphetamine, LSD and marijuana, among others.

Columbus Police Officer Kelly Holley demonstrated how officers do field tests on drugs, which are done at the scene of an arrest or sometimes after the individual is transported back to the department.

“Sometimes the person will tell us what it is,” Holley said of drugs that officers find. “But some are not so forthcoming.”

Tests can be done on substances that could be found in a plastic bag, or on drug paraphernalia that might be found on a suspect which has drug residue in it, she said. Only a small amount of a substance is needed for the test kit to determine what type of drug it is, she said.

Officers wear gloves when testing substances and the police department is in the process of supplying officers with masks as part of the testing procedure, said Lt. Matt Harris, Columbus Police Department spokesman.

Individual packets are available to test for marijuana, LSD, methamphetamine, heroin, ephedrine and cocaine. Some drugs may have to be tested a second time depending on what the drug was cut with, such as fentanyl, or depending on its purity. Columbus police used a heat seal when placing the drugs into an clear plastic evidence bag as a further safety precaution which prevents the substance from becoming airborne.

Some samples may be sent to the Indiana State Police lab for verification or more detailed results, but Holley said the field tests don’t give a false positive. The technology has been used for more than 16 years by the department, Harris said.

A majority of the amounts that CPD officers come across are small, Rohde said.

“But if we come across someone transporting a large amount of drugs, it’s necessary to field test or we lack probable cause,” he said. “We are still in the business of developing probable cause by field testing substances and developing probable cause to make arrests,” he said.

To learn more

To learn more about drug abuse in Bartholomew County, visit the Bartholomew County Substance Abuse Council Facebook page at:

facebook.com/BartholomewCountySubstanceAbuseCouncil/?fref=ts

Pull Quote

“We are still in the business of developing probable cause by field testing substances and developing probable cause to make arrests.”

— Columbus Police Chief Jon Rohde

Pull Quote

“We’re not going to ask deputies to open a bag of narcotics and risk exposure to fentanyl.”

— Sheriff’s Department Capt. David Steinkoenig

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.