“Patently False” Fentanyl Myth Peddled by Vermont Police Chief

On March 15, Brett Flansburg, a Vermont state trooper, collapsed in the parking lot of a police barracks after transporting a small bag of confiscated heroin. Flansburg received three doses of naloxone and showed “signs of improvement” later in the hospital.

For Colonel Matthew T. Birmingham, director of the State Police, it was clear what caused Flansburg’s health crisis: handling heroin, which he implies to be laced with fentanyl.

“There is a new threat that we’re seeing up close: the risk of exposure to powerful drugs that can kill in even tiny amounts,” said Col. Birmingham in a press release the following day. “This is so troubling and disconcerting, and it places members of law enforcement at unnecessary risk of possibly losing their lives.”

Although Birmingham does not explicitly claim that the baggie contained fentanyl, his remarks follow from the narrative pushed by the Drug Enforcement Administration that fentanyl is so potent that merely coming into skin-to-skin contact with quantities smaller than a penny could cause overdose.

But as two Harvard Medical School physicians, Jeremy Samuel Foster and Edward Boyer, wrote in a New York Times op-ed in January, such claims of fentanyl’s near-supernatural potency are “patently false.” Additionally, the doctors debunk the presumed causal relationship drawn by Col. Birmingham that Flanburg’s condition improved because naloxone was administered.

“Were it not for the immediate availability of Narcan and the quick actions of his fellow troopers and medical personnel, we might be speaking today about the death of a trooper in the line of duty,” said Col. Birmingham.

In response to assumptions similar to Birmingham’s, Foster and Boyer wrote, “Just because somebody received naloxone and later recovered is not by itself proof that the medication had any more effect than that other tried-and-true antidote for what are likely to have been severe panic attacks: time.”

Foster and Boyer compare the panic stirred around fentanyl to the irrational fear held by medical providers who refused to treat people with, or suspected of being positive for, HIV in the 1980s.

Additionally, as Filter has reported, the fear-mongering encouraged by unfounded beliefs about fentanyl continues a xenophobic and racist legacy that once held opium to be an uncanny force violating white bodies.

After the publication of this article, Filter learned of a letter sent by the Commissioner of Public Safety Thomas D. Anderson to VT Digger, the regional news site that ran a “fact check” on Birmingham’s statements. In it, Anderson accuses VT Digger of “ignor[ing] or perform[ing] some mental gymnastics to dismiss” the findings of state organizations like the Center for Disease Control, Office of National Drug Control Policy, and Customs and Border Protection that warn first responders of potential risks.

Anderson quotes the CDC, writing, that dermal and other mucous membrane contact could induce “a variety of symptoms that can include the rapid onset of life-threatening respiratory depression.”

Yet the CDC itself has published a summary of research that found “Symptoms of acute opioid intoxication resulting from incidental dermal contact with fentanyl…appears to be an unlikely occurrence.” At the end of this sentence, the government agency links to a Denver Post article about St. Louis law enforcement policy that discontinued the use of field drug testing out of fear that officers may come in contact with drugs like fentanyl, implying that such “incident dermal contact” includes that experienced by law enforcement.


Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Updated March 25, 2019: Included quotes from Anderson’s letter provided to Filter by Vermont State Police Public Information Officer Adam Silverman.

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