Police update safety protocols over life-threatening illegal drugs

Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are far more dangerous even than heroin, prompting police to update their safety measures.

Glass jars containing deadly doses of the substances indicated. Image: Tulli

The forensic lab of the National Bureau of Investigation has updated its safety guidelines for handling and investigating powerful synthetic opioids, which have become more common in Finland's illegal drug trade.

Detective Jari Luoto from the Central Finland police department says the new recommendations – which include using respirators, protective clothing and gloves – have alerted even senior drug squad detectives to the dangers of the new boom in synthetic substances.

"The particle concentration is so dangerous in certain drugs that even we have to protect ourselves just to study them," Luoto says.

The primary substances of concern are fully synthetic opioids such as fentanyl (100 times stronger than morphine) and its analogue carfentanil (10,000 times stronger than morphine).

Lab director Erkki Sippola says that safety precautions must be followed for even a suspicion of fentanyl exposure. This is because even minute amounts can affect the respitory system, and the opioids can also be absorbed through the skin.

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Fentanyl mixed with brown sugar, easily mistaken for heroin, which is far milder than the opioid. Image: Poliisi

Increased risk

Synthetic drugs (which also include medical opioids such as methadone and buprenorfin) have caused more poisonings and deaths in Europe in recent years than ever before, with figures climbing over the past four consecutive years.

A deadly dose of carfentanil for an adult is about 0.03 mg, compared to some 30 mg for heroin.

"Emergency personnel and health care professionals are also at risk, as an affected patient might be carrying even trace amounts of these deadly drugs," Sippola says.

Sippola says that highly potent drugs are still rare in Finland, although they are becoming more common. The NBI lab tested 17,500 samples last year and found that the amount of dangerous opioids had grown by 50 percent from the previous year.

China main source

The illegal drug trade increasingly takes place online, on social media as well as via the darkweb. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction reports that most synthetic drugs are produced in China, with some production also taking place in Europe.

Luoto says that it is exceedingly difficult for both users and police to know whether the substances purchased contain what is promised in the amounts indicated without laboratory testing.