The ongoing panic around fentanyl, a potent opioid that is driving the overdose crisis, is being stoked among law enforcement by unscientific claims, as well as alarmist images and videos. But government agencies are also funding workshops by a company that seems to have a history of giving police officers misleading messages about the drug.
On September 6, the National Guard awarded a $110,000 contract for a course on “Fentanyl and Other Synthetic Opioids” to Professional Law Enforcement Training, LLC (PLET). The course will be held at the Midwest Counterdrug Training Center in Iowa.
Stating its mission to be “saving officers’ lives […] and successfully prosecuting criminals to ensure convictions,” PLET will instruct military officers and general law enforcement officials from around the country in “officer and public safety concerns,” as well as “opiate user recognition,” among other things.
Although the exact new curriculum is unclear, PLET’s past courses on fentanyl, which have been delivered to police departments like St. Louis, Missouri and Reno, Nevada, as well as larger organizations like New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) have included portrayals of fentanyl risks that are highly misleading.
The online description of PLET’s past course, “Fighting Fentanyl”—which covered “Risks to Law Enforcement,” “Recognition and Awareness Symptoms of Exposure” and “Response to Accidental Exposure”—accurately points out that “fentanyl can be absorbed through skin.”
But it misleadingly states in the following sentence that an amount comparable to “a few grains of salt” may be “enough to potentially kill a 250lb man,” adding that an “an officer can die in less than 3 minutes” following the onset of an overdose.
Each statement, if read alone, could be true. But when taken together and framed to stoke fear—with phrases like “if this isn’t scary enough” included—PLET seems to be peddling the increasingly pervasive myth that just one touch of fentanyl can kill.
Scientifically-grounded perspectives have refuted such claims. Similarly supported by Harvard Medical School professors and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the American College of Medical Toxicology and American Academy of Clinical Toxicology asserted in their 2017 position paper on fentanyl exposure that “incidental dermal absorption is unlikely to cause opioid toxicity.”
Even when absorbed under one of the most efficient exposure methods—medical-grade, “high dose” patches completely covering both sides of a person’s hands—fentanyl would require a period of approximately 14 minutes to be fully absorbed through skin. This is a scenario highly unlikely to occur to an officer undertaking normal duties with a reasonable amount of care.
When asked to comment on the scientific evidence that seems to contradict the claims likely to be presented in the contracted company’s course, a National Guard Bureau spokesperson told Filter that they do “not comment on medical opinions or debate positions of outside entities.”
“Fentanyl is a risk for people who use drugs, not for law enforcement. The entire premise is mistaken, but my real suspicion is that they know this is a scam,” Dr. Ryan Marino, an emergency physician who actively uses social media to counter fentanyl misinformation, told Filter, after reviewing PLET’s course information. “You can make money from fear.”
PLET’s courses on officer safety when handling fentanyl are also offered at other Counterdrug Training Centers in Florida and Mississippi, though centers in Pennsylvania and Washington seem not yet to have them.
The National Guard’s recent investment in potentially inaccurate trainings for law enforcement officers follows the Department of Justice’s 2018 request for an additional $2.5 million to fund Drug Enforcement Administration officer safety measures—including more “personal protective equipment for agents in the field to minimize exposure to deadly opioids during enforcement actions,” as well overdose-reversing naloxone specifically for “ensuring the safety of DEA personnel and the public who may come in contact with dangerous opioids inadvertently.”
Professional Law Enforcement Training did not respond to Filter’s request for comment by publication time.
Photograph of a “Fighting Fentanyl” workshop on January 23, 2019; by Professional Law Enforcement Training via Instagram
9/12/19 Update: Dr. Ryan Marino’s comment was added.