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More funding needed in fentanyl analog fight, NYC officials say

NYC special narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan on Tuesday

NYC special narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan on Tuesday discusses the need for state legislation to combat the emergence of deadly fentanyl analogs. Credit: Todd Maisel

New York is in the midst of a  “fourth wave” drug crisis involving deadly fentanyl analogs, official said Tuesday, and urgent changes in state laws are needed to deal with the problem.

Citing increased overdose deaths in the five boroughs since 2017 related to the use of  analogs — chemicals slightly modified from regular fentanyl to avoid New York state drug laws — city Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan said the substances were exacerbating law enforcement problems.

“Fentanyl analogs have been linked to roughly 900 overdose deaths in New York City since 2017,” Brennan said during a news conference at police headquarters to announce the results of a special grand jury report highlighting the emerging problem, which she added would be a surprise to the general public.

The grand jury report stated that NYPD police crime labs and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner don’t have equipment to do the type of close analysis needed to identify a fentanyl analog.

Brennan noted that fentanyl analogs, which might only have a slight molecular variation from regular fentanyl, have no legitimate medical use but have the same effect on the human body by suppressing respiration and sometimes leading to death. Fentanyl can legitimately be used as an anesthetic.

Beginning with the rise of prescription pain killer abuse in recent years, heroin importation and fentanyl, the analog issue is the latest challenge law enforcement faces, said Brennan, a special narcotics prosecutor for more than 20 years.

”I view this as the fourth wave," Brennan said, adding that investigators are often behind the curve on drug abuse trends. “We can’t be caught flat-footed again. … They [analogs] are largely unregulated in New York State and the failure to regulate prevents law enforcement from acting quickly to protect the public by dismantling organizations whose activities result in overdose deaths.”

Just a “little tweak” in the chemical composition of fentanyl makes it no longer a controlled substance under state law, Brennan said, although a recent temporary fix in federal narcotics laws does cover such changes for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

However, she said, when local police and prosecutors are faced with fentanyl analogs, their hands are tied.

“We cannot use ordinary law enforcement tools to find the source of those drugs,” Brennan said. “We can’t make arrests, but it also means we can’t obtain search warrants, we can’t use wiretaps, we can’t use all those things we need to find the top of the supply chain.”

The grand jury report not only called on the State Legislature to prohibit all fentanyl analogs under state drug laws but also called for more public education funding about the dangers of analogs and overdosing.

NYPD Deputy Chief Emanuel Katranakis, who joined Brennan at the news conference, citing the lack of necessary equipment to identify analogs, said the NYPD needed more funding for testing in the face of the rise and unpredictable nature of the fentanyl byproduct.

“Without a doubt, the funding is going to be very, very important,” Katranakis said.

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