MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A trip to El Paso, Texas frightened the Morgantown Chief of Police.
That probably doesn’t sound much like news at face value. It had nothing to do with the lights of the “big city” — El Paso having 20 times the population of Morgantown isn’t what caused one of Morgantown’s longest tenured law enforcement veterans to take pause.
“There are probably 16,000 different formulations of potential fentanyls, and they can be ordered up in chemical factories overseas in China, Thailand, and places like that,” Preston said Monday on Morgantown AM. “Then shipped into the United States.”
The size of the heroin epidemic, a drug he said has had life cycles of popularity since it’s first peak in the 1970’s, has only increased in vastness in West Virginia and the nation with the advent of synthetic opioids.
“When you start talking about things like fentanyl, that is something that is manufactured chemically that is similar in nature to the opioids from the poppy,” Preston said. “When you start hearing these fentanyl, carfentanil, acetylfentanyl — that’s all man-made. That’s all made in a lab somewhere.”
Preston spent five days in El Paso as part of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program for a law enforcement conference on drugs, drug trafficking, and other areas of the drug trade. Despite serving eight years as an undercover officer in organized drug task force investigations, Preston said the data makes the battle against opioids “a constantly changing war.”
“I thought I was pretty well informed,” he said. “This stuff is so scary that I didn’t know anything.”
Just inside of city limits, the Morgantown Police Department has responded to 56 overdoses since August 2016, including seven people who were dead on arrival. That doesn’t account for what other agencies have responded to in that time frame — either in the city or outside the city in the greater Monongalia County area.
“[Opioids] are so toxic that you can receive a lethal dose just by touching it,” Preston said. “You can have skin-absorbed fentanyl in lethal dose. Just touching it with your bare hands is enough.”
When his officers and the task forces that combat opioid operations learn that a “new batch” has entered the area, they consistently send out warnings about what to look for — often using the media as a means of sounding the alarm. Even a used synthetic opioid “stamp” has lethal potential through accidental skin contact.
“We’re seeing a lot of different mixtures,” he said. “Our Task Force just seized 22 grams of pure fentanyl [last] year in one of their drug raids. If you start thinking micrograms are lethal doses, just how many can 22 grams kill?”
Fentanyl, 100 times stronger than heroin, and carfentanil, 1,000 times stronger than heroin, are drugs that task forces across the state, the region, and the country are seeing in frighteningly large quantities that can be extremely lethal. Preston said part of that comes down to the market of addiction.
“There will always be another addict to keep the demand fresh,” he said. “So why would drug dealers care what happens to their customers?”
Carfentanil, in fact, has even been described as a “chemical weapon.”
“Someone that’s responsible for a drug-induced death, they are being prosecuted for it,” Preston said. “It’s not just being handled as a simple overdose anymore. If they provide a product that results in someone’s death, they are going to be prosecuted for it.”
That investigation in 2016 Preston referenced began due to the discovery of carfentanil tablets mixed with a round of overdoses in Washington, Pennsylvania and in parts of nearby Maryland. Though Preston described himself as being “blown away” by the size and scope of this issue, he said HIDTA and other regional drug task forces have allowed law enforcement agencies to pool their resources, making drug organizations easier to eliminate. Rather than a local police department or county Sheriff’s Office investigating individual dealers, it allows them to attack entire organizations.
He also advocates a holistic approach to the opioid epidemic. By attacking holistically — through a medical solution for addicts and a law and order solution for dealers — Preston said crime numbers are proven to come down.
“A lot of crimes like break-ins and robberies are often a result of someone trying to feed an addiction,” he said. “Should they be punished for their crimes? Yes. But we also need to treat this medically.”
Preston also issued the following plea.
“We have a cabinet that you can drop off [drugs] anonymously here at the police station,” he said. “It’s a brand new mailbox, that you just pull the front, throw the drugs in, and close it up. We’ll destroy it there. No questions asked. We do it every day. Seven days a week it’s open.”
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, an organization that specializes in health policy analysis and health journalism, West Virginia led the nation in opioid overdose death rate every year, excluding 2009, between 2006 and 2015, which was the most recent available year of data.
According to that data, overdose death rates in West Virginia were at an all-time high in 2015.