How the dangers of fentanyl are impacting Montana first responders

fentanyl testing
drug k9
fentanyl stats
jay nelson
Posted at 6:52 PM, Apr 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-06 20:52:12-04

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, medical professionals, and even the crime lab scientists who are trying to get it off the streets.

MTN News takes an in-depth look at the danger and the scope of this new drug epidemic in Montana.

It took Harry — one of the newest Montana Highway Patrol (MHP) drug detection dogs — just seconds to find the meth we put in the back of our news car; he found it every time.

drug k9
Harry is one of the newest Montana Highway Patrol drug detection dogs.

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

"Last year alone with the MHP, we had over 3,000 pills of fentanyl seized. This quarter, we’ve already exceeded that by over 12,000. That's a dramatic increase and it should be causing alarm for every community in Montana,” noted MHP Sgt. Jay Nelson.

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen says fentanyl is now becoming the drug of choice.

“We know one of the major reasons we’re seeing more of it in the state is frankly because the southern border is so wide open. We’ve made it increasingly easier for the Mexican cartels to smuggle not just Fentanyl it’s certainly the soup de jour, it’s what’s hot right now, we’re seeing more of it." - Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen

Meanwhile, at the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula, they test those 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 State Crime 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.

fentanyl testing
The Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula uses extra precautions when dealing with fentanyl.

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.

fentanyl stats

"There’s a cartel connection to the state of Montana by far. Law enforcement is aware of this, and it makes our job ever more dangerous,” Nelson said.

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

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.

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen

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.

Harry is one of the multiple new canine officers around the state obtained through a $300,000 grant to fight drug trafficking. They can also be treated with Narcan in the event they're exposed to fentanyl.