A police officer in a town plagued by the opioid crisis is back on the job Tuesday after nearly dying from a drug overdose during a routine traffic stop.
Patrolman Chris Green was called in as backup on Friday night in East Liverpool, Ohio, to help search a vehicle that had white powder spilled across the floorboards and seats — a substance police believed to be the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, or perhaps the elephant tranquilizer carfentanil. Green was wearing latex gloves as a safety precaution, but he took them off to frisk the driver, 25-year-old Justin Buckel.
“When I got to the scene, he was covered in it,” Green told East Liverpool’s Morning Journal newspaper. “I patted him down, and that was the only time I didn’t wear gloves. Otherwise, I followed protocol.”
Back at the police station later that evening, Green noticed some bits of the powdery white substance on his uniform. He wiped it off with his bare hands — a move he regretted almost immediately. As his fellow cops looked on stunned, Green collapsed.
“I started talking weird,” he recalled to the Morning Journal. “I slowly felt my body shutting down. I could hear them talking, but I couldn’t respond. I was in total shock. ‘No way I’m overdosing,’ I thought.”
The opioid crisis has hit East Liverpool especially hard, and the overdose antidote naloxone is now a standard-issue accessory for local cops. Green’s fellow cops gave him a dose in nasal spray form and took him to the hospital, where doctors were reportedly forced to administer three more doses to get him totally recovered.
Green was set to return to work on Tuesday, but he told the local newspaper he was still feeling the effects of the overdose over the weekend. He said his head “feels like it’s in a vice grip, my heart feels like I got kicked in the chest and my stomach feels like I have a case of the flu.”
Police are still awaiting lab results to determine exactly what was in the white powder that Green touched, but the DEA has warned that extremely potent synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, carfentanil, and other related compounds threaten the safety of law enforcement officers around the country. The drugs are so strong — 100 times more powerful than heroin in some cases — that touching or inhaling even a tiny amount can be fatal.
“It’s a dangerous world out there when the law enforcement officers don’t even know what substance they’re encountering,” DEA spokesman Russ Baer told VICE News last year after dozens of overdoses across Ohio were linked to synthetic opioids. “The wholesale drug dealers in these market and the people buying these substances, they oftentimes don’t know what they’re buying or selling. They don’t know if it’s heroin, heroin-laced fentanyl or just straight up fentanyl.”
Drug overdoses killed a record 3,050 people in Ohio in 2015, and 1,155 of those deaths were linked to fentanyl, more than twice as many as the previous year. The data for 2016 isn’t available yet, but preliminary reports suggest it could be “much worse.” East Liverpool, located near the Pennsylvania border, about 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, made national headlines for its opioid problem last year when police posted a picture on Facebook of two parents overdosed in their car with their child in the backseat.
“I never thought I would see the day that I deal with more heroin-related incidents than marijuana,” East Liverpool Patrolman Fred Flati told VICE News after the Facebook post went viral. “During some of those nights where you handle three maybe four overdoses, the neighboring police departments, they’ll be doing the same thing.”
The situation in Ohio mirrors a national trend, with overdoses soaring as users increasingly turning to synthetic opioids, which provide a relatively cheap and intense high. Dealers import the drugs from Mexico, where cartels manufacture the opioids and mix them with heroin, or directly from China, which recently moved to crack down on illicit opioid production in response to American pressure.
“The U.S. is the one with the opioid addiction problem,” said Baer. “China they’ve gone out of their way in many respects to understand our perspective on the opioid epidemic. It’s a global problem. China is a part of it, as is the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. We’ve been working together to get our arms around it.”
Green isn’t the first police officer to get sick from synthetic opioids. Two detectives were hospitalized last August in New Jersey after accidentally inhaling drugs during a field test, and the following month 11 SWAT officers fell ill in Connecticut after being exposed to suspected fentanyl powder during a bust. A police K-9 died last November after sniffing fentanyl during a drug raid in Florida.
Buckel, the suspect in the East Liverpool case, was arrested and faces felony drug charges. A passenger in the vehicle, 24-year-old Cortez Collins, was also arrested. Both men are being held in jail on a $100,000 bond, according to local news reports.