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With Opioid Deaths On The Rise In Chemung County, Senator Launches Push To Pass Bipartisan “POWER Act” Grant Program To Help Local Police Pay For High-Tech Chemical Detection Tool To Sniff Out Illegal Drugs Like Fentanyl

According To Drug Enforcement Experts, It Only Takes A Small Amount Of Fentanyl To Cause A Deadly Reaction; Senator Says Congress Must Do Everything Possible To Keep The Public And Police Safe

Schumer: Deploying New Tech Across The Southern Tier Could Be A Game-Changer To Keep Police Officers Safe And Protect From Lethal Fentanyl ODs

Standing at Elmira City Hall in Elmira, N.Y., U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer renewed his push to pass the Providing Officers with Electronic Resources (POWER) Act. According to Schumer, the bipartisan bill, set to be reintroduced by Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Rob Portman (R-OH), creates a new grant program through the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that will help state and local law enforcement secure new high-tech, portable screening devices to quickly, effectively, and safely identify dangerous drugs like fentanyl in the field. Schumer explained that the opioid crisis requires an all-hands-on-deck and an all-of-the-above approach, especially in Elmira, where the effects of a major drug ring bust are still being felt. With the recent sentencing of two Elmirans for their central roles in the operation, as well as the horrific deaths of at least two individuals due to the ingestion of fentanyl purchased from this ring, Senator Schumer detailed how the POWER Act will give law enforcement the tools they need to address this deadly drug on the ground level.

“It’s no secret that the opioid epidemic has ravaged communities in Chemung County and throughout the Southern Tier. Even last week, as convictions continued to roll in from the infamous 2017 bust, it was clearer than ever that opioids not only rip families apart, they also put our law enforcement officials at risk by exposing them to illegal and fatal substances such as fentanyl,” said Senator Schumer. “And it is our responsibility to do everything within our power to protect the men and women who bravely put themselves in harm’s way every single day in order to protect us and to ensure the public safety of our communities by providing them with the proper resources to do their job. This bill and these screening devices will help keep law enforcement safe and allow them to work more efficiently while on the front lines fighting the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities.” 

Schumer said the opioid epidemic has plagued Chemung County in recent years. Schumer explained that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin, has quickly swept into the Southern Tier and surrounding regions, exacerbating the opioid epidemic that is already devastating families in Chemung County. In 2017, according to most recent New York State Department of Health statistics, Chemung County had 62 outpatient emergency department visits related to opioid overdoses and 12 fatal drug overdoses. Additionally, in 2017, 384 people from Chemung county were admitted into chemical dependency programs and 182 people were administered Naloxone. Schumer explained that these overdoses are from both heroin, and heroin combined with fentanyl or fentanyl analogs, a lethal combination of drugs referred to as “Gray Death.”

Schumer noted that two men had recently been convicted of selling fentanyl analogs in Elmira as part of a large opioid manufacturing and distribution operation in the Southern Tier. So far, 16 members of the trafficking organization have been convicted, and three have been sentenced. According to reports, these men manufactured thousands of pills containing an extremely harmful fentanyl analog, which led to the deaths of at least two people, and the hospitalization of another.

Although pharmaceutical fentanyl can be misused, most of the fentanyl being sold on the street is illicitly manufactured. While distributors in China are the principal source of the precursor chemicals used to manufacture the drug, as well as a source for finished-product illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, there are a number of international sources of illicit fentanyl being smuggled into the United States. Fentanyl suppliers then use methods such as mislabeling shipments or concealing the drug inside legitimate goods in order to avoid law enforcement detection. Through July of 2018, U.S. Border Patrol seized nearly 340 pounds of fentanyl, almost double the 181 pounds of fentanyl that were seized in all of 2017. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between June 2017 and June 2018, a record 31,500 people in the United States died from synthetic opioid overdoses, excluding methadone. The labs that make these synthetic opioids take advantage of law enforcement officials’ limited capabilities to detect fentanyl. Schumer added the drug is extremely lucrative for dealers and cartels, who can sell $3,000 to $5,000 in fentanyl purchased from a Chinese drug laboratory for up to $1.5 million on the street. 

Schumer was joined by law enforcement and elected officials from across Chemung County.

To address these challenges, Senator Schumer will be joining Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Rob Portman (R-OH), Cory Gardner (R-CO), and Thom Tillis (R-NC) to reintroduce the bipartisan POWER ACT to ensure that law enforcement agencies have the tools to identify illicit drugs and prevent them from coming across the border. Schumer, who has a history of working to get law enforcement the resources and equipment necessary to keep our communities safe, announced his support for the bi-partisan legislation.

Specifically, the Schumer backed POWER Act would authorize $20 million to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to create a new grant program to help state and local law enforcement organizations secure high-tech, portable screening devices – also known as interdiction devices -  in order to better detect illicit fentanyl and protect field officers from exposure. The devices can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $80,000 per unit, which makes them cost-prohibitive for local law enforcement agencies relying on already tight municipal budgets.

Dan Mandell, Mayor of the City of Elmira said, “Many thanks go out to Senator Schumer for supporting the POWER Act. This demonstrates Senator Schumer's unwavering support for law enforcement and also his relentless effort in ensuring that law enforcement has all the tools necessary to combat the opioid problem in our community, and communities like ours across the country." 

Captain Eugene Walrath, Elmira Police Department said, "The Elmira Police Department, like so many law enforcement agencies, is exposed to potentially dangerous illicit drugs on an almost daily basis. The ability to secure high-tech, portable drug screening devices would enable officers to identify suspected narcotics quickly and allow them to safely handle these dangerous drugs. Unfortunately, most local law enforcement agencies lack the funds to purchase this costly equipment." 

Chemung County District Attorney Weeden Wetmore said, “The Chemung County District Attorney’s Office supports any legislation that is aimed at ensuring the safety of law enforcement officers. Funding the purchase of scanning devices to identify illegal and potentially deadly drugs, such as fentanyl, will greatly assist and protect our local police officers in our fight against the opioid crisis. We stand behind this bi-partisan effort to protect our communities from drugs and keep the men and women of law enforcement safe.”

Federal law enforcement officials have already deployed this drug scanning equipment to screen contraband smuggled into the United States at the border or through the mail. For example, when border officials encounter a suspicious substance, it can be difficult to detect the source of the illicit material and whether it poses a hazard to them. In the face of this challenge, federal law enforcement agencies at U.S. ports of entry have had success with screening and determining illicit drugs, like fentanyl, with the help of these high-tech, handheld chemical screening devices. The POWER Act ensures that local law enforcement in communities in the Southern Tier and beyond can also afford to obtain this same technology and portable chemical screening devices, in order to better interpret tests gathered from the field, and minimize agent’s exposure to dangerous substances.