A North Carolina man faces charges of assault with intent to kill for exposing two detectives and a sheriff's deputy to opioids—possibly fentanyl—during a traffic stop on January 5. One detective reportedly lost consciousness after exposure to the drugs. Given the recent misleading reports of police overdosing by simply touching fentanyl, it's worth taking a closer look at cases like this.
The New Hanover County Sheriff's Office put out a press release on Friday describing the arrest. The suspect, Lewis Rudolph Brown Drayton, 37, was a passenger in a vehicle pulled over by deputies on Interstate 40 as part of a drug investigation. Drayton allegedly responded by attempting to toss drugs out of the vehicle's window. Two detectives and a deputy approaching the vehicle were "exposed to a powerful and highly addictive opioid drug," according to the release. One detective had a reaction and lost consciousness at the scene. He was administered Narcan, which reverses opioid overdoses, and the three were taken to the hospital and treated. He has since been released. The sheriff's office is testing the drug to find out if there was fentanyl in it.
The vague description of how the detective was "exposed" raised questions. Simply touching fentanyl is not dangerous. And according to a study conducted by the American College of Medical Toxicology and American Academy of Clinical Toxicology, being in proximity to small amounts of open fentanyl only carries risk by inhalation if the person is standing by it for hours.
This has led to a lot of credulous media reports of police overdosing by merely touching fentanyl or breathing in the proximity of the drug for a few moments. Critiques of the police and the media for making this false claim are warranted. While fentanyl is indeed very dangerous and potentially deadly, fueling false panic about the risks involved helps nobody.
But, it turns out, this particular case may involve more than simply coming in contact with or being in proximity to fentanyl. Reason spoke with J.J. Brewer, the public information officer for the sheriff's department, to clarify what happened.
"This is the first time it's ever happened to us," Brewer said about the detective's exposure and collapse. Brewer explained that the detectives and deputy were approaching the car (which had been pulled over and stopped in Interstate 40's median) as Drayton was allegedly dumping drugs out of a back window. Brewer said the drugs were not bagged as Drayton dumped them: "It was loose and blew everywhere."
Having a large amount of fentanyl and other opioids blown into your face is quite different than standing around open fentanyl. And so it's possible that the detective may well have lost consciousness after inhaling a dangerous amount of fentanyl and whatever other opioids might have been in the mix, particularly if there was a high concentration of fentanyl in what was thrown out. Brewer said that the other detective and the deputy did not show any symptoms.
Brewer said he didn't believe the detective was tested for drugs in his system at the hospital, and he's recovering fine. They're still testing the drugs they've recovered from the stop to determine what they were.
Drayton is charged with assault with intent to kill for exposing the officers to the drugs, as well as two felony counts of trafficking in opium or heroin, possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia. Brewer tells Reason Drayton will likely face additional drug-related charges based on what drugs they determine were in the car.
It may well be the case this time that the detective's exposure was, in fact, dangerous. It shows how important it is for law enforcement to be clear in their public reports describing what exactly happened and for journalists to ask questions when reporting on accounts of fentanyl exposure.
Still, charging Drayton with assault with intent to kill is inappropriate unless police can prove he was trying to force the officers to inhale the drugs. These trumped-up charges fuel the panic around both the idea that any contact with fentanyl is extremely dangerous and the typical drug war view that dealers are deliberately trying to kill users.