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Fighting the Opioid Crisis: Exclusive inside the state crime lab

“Lab coat, eyewear, a mask, as well as gloves and then we also have Narcan which is available in every office for the chemists,” said John Byrd, the director of the North Carolina State Crime lab as he talked about the additional safety precautions taken to protect chemists testing for fentanyl in evidence samples. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

Overdose deaths in North Carolina related to fentanyl increased by 93 percent last year.

Right now, there's no way to hold a dealer or drug trafficker responsible for this deadly drug because fentanyl analogs are not considered controlled substances in North Carolina.

News 13 takes you exclusively into the state crime lab. In some cases, it can take days just to count the samples in large heroin cases. Its creating more work for the lab with dangerous consequences.

“This stuff is deadly,” Attorney General Josh Stein said as he watched chemists process heroin samples laced with fentanyl inside the state crime lab.

It’s safe to say, state crime lab chemists' hands are full.

“Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. A grain of salt-size of fentanyl can kill a person,” said Stein.

That means changing the protocol for officers handling evidence on the street.

“If they come across stuff they don't know, send it to the state crime lab and don't do the analysis themselves,” said Stein.

And in the lab, it’s requiring more protective layers for chemists.

“Lab coat, eyewear, a mask, as well as gloves and then we also have Narcan, which is available in every office for the chemists,” said John Byrd, the director of the North Carolina State Crime lab.

In the first quarter of 2017, the lab processed as many heroin and fentanyl related cases as it did in 10 months last year.

An exclusive look as chemists work a large heroin case

A preliminary test shows samples marked "mad dog" test positive for heroin by turning purple when mixed with a reaction agent. Further testing reveals why these tiny packets are so dangerous. The first sample the lab ran was mostly heroin.

“Where's your fentanyl?” forensic scientist manager Ann Hamlin asked.

“You can barely see it,” the chemist explained.

The next sample is the opposite.

“This peak here would be heroin and this peak here is fentanyl,” the chemist explained, pointing to the results.

The fentanyl peak was four times the size of the heroin peak in the sample.

“These are garage chemists that just have no knowledge or background, and they just mix a little here and mix a little there. Their goal is to make money at the expense and cost of human lives,” said Byrd.

There are 12 types, or spinoffs, of fentanyl.

“Just in the state crime lab, we've seen right around 10 of those analogs here, and there's no reason to believe why we wouldn't see all 12, as well as any new ones that came along,” said Byrd.

Law change needed

But authorities can't go after those responsible for these deadly concoctions without changing state law. A proposal stands now before the state legislature.

“There was one analog of fentanyl last year that was responsible for at least 77 deaths here in North Carolina, that is not against the law, it is not a controlled substance,” said Stein.

Stein wants to change that and has asked for $20 million to increase community-based treatment.

“When you decide you want to get clean, and you decide in that moment, there has to be a place for you right then, because if it takes two or three days, at that point the craving for your addiction will be so strong that the person may no longer want to get clean,” said Stein.

He and the lab are working with the DEA, the FBI and other states to better track and fight what's become a nationwide crisis.

“There are counties in Ohio that don't have enough slabs in the morgues for the number of people who are overdosing from these prescription opioids and heroin and from fentanyl. We can't have that in North Carolina,” said Stein.

Stein is also calling on the insurance industry and local governments to join the battle. He said insurance companies need to cover more than a month of recovery and local governments need to assist in creating recovery centers. Stein is planning a forum in Asheville on June 6 and he hopes the community will come out and be part of the discussion.

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