Arizona Criminal Law and Procedure Blog

Fentanyl: an Opiate of the Masses Causes Arizona DPS to Change its Policy on Field Testing of Drugs

Posted by Steven Sherick | Sep 22, 2017 | 0 Comments

Fentanyl is a dangerous opiate. A Schedule II controlled substance because of its high risk of dependency and dangerous side effects, the drug was primarily meant only to provide relief from serious pain. Fentanyl can be injected, swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin, and if used properly, the drug is beneficial for medical purposes. The problem, however, is the increase in the improper and illegal use of the drug. The misuse and abuse of this drug leads its users down a narrow path to nowhere, but maybe a grave. Along with its opiate family, it is the main source of drug overdoses in the country, causing more than 33,000 deaths in 2015. Deaths from opioid overdoses have quadrupled in less than two decades. A high percentage of those deaths were related to Fentanyl.

Arizona is like most other states in the country to be experiencing a significant increase in fentanyl abuse, overdose, and deaths. But the problem in Arizona is Fentanyl comes in three forms: the legally obtained and/or manufactured Fentanyl versus illegally made fentanyl from Mexico versus illicit drugs laced with fentanyl. All of these drugs are extremely potent and dangerous. The criminal consequences of possession, manufacturing or distributing the drug in its various forms does not compare to the physical and emotional consequences that the drug has on the abuser and, ultimately, their families and society. It is a very solemn issue, one that law enforcement agencies have taken seriously over the last few years.

As a result of heightened alarm over opioid addiction, abuse, and overdose, a significant effort has been made to identify and arrest persons illegally manufacturing and distributing the drug. On-site field tests have been a consequential part of this effort. Police have been using kits to test drugs to determine if they are either (1) Fentanyl; or (2) Heroin. A sample of the drug is placed in a tube, mixed with a solution. In one popular kit produced by Sirchie, the solution turns orange if it's Fentanyl, and purple if it's Heroin. The kits are plagued with a problem: its color-coded scheme. ProPublica has undercovered that more than 20 substances can cause the solution to turn orange, and some of these substances are legal. Police can and have been arresting people on the spot for a drug violation when in fact the substance was not a drug, and though these cases are relatively few, you wouldn't want to be that person falsely accused.

The problem with the evidentiary value of Fentanyl field kits, however, was not the reason a policy change has been made this month within Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS). Field kits and field testing will no longer be used by police officers. Any suspicious substance must now be sent to DPS laboratories for rigorous testing in a controlled environment. The reason for the sudden policy change: fear of the lethal effects of Fentanyl by police officers. A number of cases -- none in Arizona -- have made national news where police officers were exposed to Fentanyl and became ill and one officer almost died. According to AZ Central, some medical professionals claim the fear by law enforcement agencies to handle the drug is flat: so long as proper standards are met and care is taken, law enforcement agencies are not at risk of harm. Nonetheless, field testing will conclude in Arizona. The unfortunate consequence, however, is in the backlog of laboratory testing, which will inevitably work against the favor of prosecutors.

As for criminal defense lawyers, the end of the field testing is good news. Oftentimes, when the kit indicates the powder substance is a drug, an accused person is more likely to enter a guilty plea without much fight. But it could be your life behind bars if you enter that guilty plea. Experienced criminal defense lawyers at Sherick & Bleier understand the importance of a proper investigation into the facts, an understanding of the details of those facts, and a thorough analysis of laboratory reports before a guilty plea is entered. Depending on the circumstances, a legal argument can be made for dismissal of charges. In many other cases, reduced charges or a plea agreement can be negotiated. All in all, Fentanyl is a medical drug used for pain relief, and through its highly addictive nature, has become a significant criminal matter.

About the Author

Steven Sherick

Steve Sherick is a "near native" Arizonan having lived most of his life in Tucson.  He received his undergraduate and legal education at the University of Arizona.  Since 1980 he has devoted all of his practice to criminal law, always in defense of those accused of crimes.  He received his Board ...


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