An opioid epidemic across the United States has forced law enforcement offices like the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) to consider new ways to handle and prosecute narcotics crimes.
President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency in October 2017, at about the same time SDPD was experiencing an increase in synthetic opioid cases.
"We started seeing cases in 2016, just a few, then we saw a five-fold increase in the number of cases in 2017," said Lisa Merzwski, supervising criminalist at the SDPD crime lab. "It's coming from China. It's made in labs over there. It's generally bought on the dark web and then brought over the border from Mexico."
The synthetic opioids problem has infiltrated SDPD's crime lab, where criminalists identify drugs that could be 100 times more potent than heroin.
Because the SDPD crime lab analyzes all drug samples brought in from narcotics investigations and patrol officers, criminalists are exposed to numerous unknown controlled substances. One of the most powerful of these drugs is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.
"We have no idea when something comes in, if it's going to contain fentanyl," explained Merzwski. "So we have to be extra cautious because if we have to open up the bag, we could breathe it in and overdose."
The crime lab recently installed a fentanyl hood, a machine that draws in air to protect its staff.
"If anything were to come out of that bag and go into the air, it's going to be sucked into the filter that's up here and stay here and not contaminate myself, my analyst or anyone else in the lab," said Merzwski.
The lab now keeps a supply of Narcan on hand as a precaution. The nasal spray immediately blocks absorption of opioids and will stop an overdose almost instantly.
The potential exposure to fentanyl has also affected patrol officers, who no longer use presumptive drug testing kits in the field. Officers now bring confiscated drugs directly to the crime lab.
The changes were made as preventative measures. SDPD officers and criminalists have not been harmed by synthetic opioids during the course of their work.
"We know (synthetic opioids) are dangerous, we know that they can cause overdoses, but we have no idea sometimes what we're dealing with," explained Merzwski.
Analysts are trying to keep up with the different chemicals being flushed into the market, Merzwski said. Sometimes all it takes to create a new drug is a slight tweak to the chemical formula.
"The drugs are absolutely going to keep changing and we have absolutely no idea how they're going to affect people," Merzwski said.
SDPD criminalists said as they try to stay ahead of the illegal drug manufacturing trade, they need to make sure they have the right training and most up-to-date instrumentation.
"(Illegal drug manufacturers) are trying to stay ahead of our instrumentation. If we can't identify it, we can't tell prosecutors what it is," Merzwski said.
"(The fentanyl crisis) is causing us, for the first time ever in our laboratory, to be behind in our casework, because it's taking so much longer to analyze everything for safety." added Merzwski. "Sometimes we don't get cases done in time for court."
Prosecutors and police are being aided by a city ordinance passed in 2016, considered the toughest such law in California, banning the synthetic drug spice. Because of the way it was written, nearly all possible variations of emerging synthetic opioids are illegal.
All SDPD divisions also have receptacles where the public can dispose of prescription drugs, no questions asked.