Dangerous drug fentanyl on rise in Tennessee

Heroin mixed with fentanyl found in Washington County, TN.

TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL) – A dangerous drug is gaining popularity in Tennessee and Virginia, taking lives in the Tri-Cities region and putting law enforcement at risk.

Earlier this year, the Tennessee Department of Health issued a health advisory on fentanyl. Fentanyl is a powerful drug used legally to treat extreme pain, but it has found its way to the illegal drug market and is killing people.

“If we don’t get a hold of it it’s going to take us over,” said Dr. Clay Renfro, who lost his son to a fentanyl overdose this year. “He was very out-going and very well-liked by all his classmates and friends,” Dr. Renfro said of his son, Frederick Renfro.

In March, Frederick Renfro, 46, died from a fentanyl overdose.

Renfro had a long battle with opioid addiction. His father said he suffered from depression and kidney stones for most of his life and had to take medication which eventually led to addiction. “I felt like the narcotics seemed to get him away from that aspect of his problems,” Dr. Renfro said. “We knew there was some problem for several years but getting him to accept that he had a problem was the big issue.” In March, Renfro, 46, died from a fentanyl overdose.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, from 2015-2016 the Volunteer State saw a 74 percent increase in drug overdose deaths related to fentanyl. In 2015, 169 Tennesseans died from fentanyl while 294 people died in 2016. The Virginia Department of Health reported a 176 percent increase in fatal fentanyl overdoses during that same time period. Reports show 225 Virginians died in 2015 and 622 died in 2016.

“It’s a significant threat to the public,” said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Tommy Farmer. “It’s not a matter of if it’s going to kill you. It’s a matter of when. You will overdose.”

SAC Farmer said illicit versions of fentanyl are typically made in makeshift labs in China and Mexico and can be up to 10,000 times more powerful than morphine.”It can become airborne, it can be absorbed through the skin or it can be inhaled,” Farmer said. Farmer also said it only takes the equivalent of three grains of sugar to overdose on fentanyl and since the consistency is similar to a power it spreads easily.

Several Tri-Cities law enforcement agencies are starting to see more cases of fentanyl. Southwest Virginia saw more than 600 confirmed cases of fentanyl last year, according to the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.

TBI crime labs have seen a steady increase in illicit fentanyl cases. Five years ago, there were only 12 confirmed cases in Tennessee. There are more than 300 confirmed cases so far in 2017, including more than three dozen in the Tri-Cities.

Earlier this year, a Washington County Sheriff’s Deputy unknowingly encountered fentanyl during a traffic stop. A K-9 alerted the officer to drugs inside a car. The officer performed a field test on the drugs and confirmed it was heroin but a TBI crime lab found out fentanyl was also mixed in.

Washington County Sheriff Lt. Doug Gregg said the officer was lucky. “He was wearing gloves for precaution and that was about it. He had no dusk mask on, he had no goggles.” Other officers across the country have gotten sick from encountering fentanyl. In November, several officers in Memphis had to be treated at a hospital for a suspected exposure.

“It’s a significant threat to the public,” said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Tommy Farmer. “It’s not a matter of if it’s going to kill you. It’s a matter of when. You will overdose.”

“It’s changing our dynamics of how we have to protect law enforcement, our first responders, the public,” SAC Farmer said.

News Channel 11 reached out to law enforcement agencies across the Tri-Cities and found out almost all of them now equip their officers with Naloxone, a medication that reverses the effects of an overdose. Officers have it on-hand in case of an accidental overdose. Some departments, including the Washington County TN Sheriff’s Office, Kingsport Police, and Bristol, TN Police also have Naloxone for their K-9s because their sniffing puts them at higher risk for exposure.

Departments are also providing additional training to its officers on how to handle unknown substances and requiring them to wear gloves, masks and sometimes bodysuits when encountering suspected fentanyl. TBI crime labs now require suspected fentanyl cases submitted for testing to be double-bagged in plastic. Departments also have to notify the crime lab if they think a case submission might be fentanyl at the time of submission.

Dr. Renfro hopes his son’s story can help save the next person. “Addicts are just your everyday son or daughter or family member and they’re good people, just got on the wrong track and I think they shouldn’t be ostracized,” Dr. Renfro said.

If you’re suffering from substance abuse and need immediate help call the Tennessee Redline at 1800-889-9789.

Copyright WJHL 2017. All rights reserved.

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