Other police agencies said they are taking more precautions because of the risk but stopped short of requiring lab tests and potentially delaying investigations.
Colchester Police Chief Jennifer Morrison said she made the change in June after receiving a DEA advisory urging police to take drugs that might be fentanyl directly to crime labs.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid linked to a surge in overdose deaths in Vermont and nationwide. It is part of a family of similar compounds that have the same narcotic effect as heroin but are far more potent.
In a video sent to police departments across the United States, Jack Riley, DEA acting deputy administrator, warns that contact with fentanyl can be deadly.
"Fentanyl is being sold as heroin in virtually every corner of our country. It's produced clandestinely in Mexico, and (also) comes directly from China. It is 40 to 50 times stronger than street-level heroin. A very small amount ingested, or absorbed through your skin, can kill you," Riley says in the video.
In the same video, a detective shares his experience of being exposed to fentanyl on the job: "I thought that was it. I thought I was dying. It felt like my body was shutting down."
The DEA warned police that "fentanyl and its compounds resemble powdered cocaine or heroin," but if an officer has reason to believe a substance could contain fentanyl "it is prudent to not field test it." Fentanyl powder can become airborne, and inhaling it can lead to poisoning as well.
Field testing refers to any test that occurs outside of a lab, including tests done at a police station.
With news reports and further DEA guidance warning about the presence of even more powerful synthetic opioids, such as carfentanil — a painkiller used on large animals — making their way into the drug supply, Morrison said she felt the moratorium made sense. The DEA said it has identified at least 15 fentanyl-related compounds with similar properties.
"We're still committed to enforcing drug laws, but I'm not going to do business as usual when there's evidence of an unprecedented threat to public safety personnel," Morrison said.
Capt. John Merrigan, Vermont State Police commander of special investigations, said a moratorium on field testing could work for a smaller department, but he predicted that eventually Colchester police might need to get test results before a judge swiftly.
To obtain an affidavit of probable cause in Vermont, officers need more than circumstantial evidence or their experience in identifying drugs. That makes field testing crucial to many investigations, Merrigan said, because the Vermont Forensic Laboratory typically has a backlog of tests to perform.
"Even when you ask for it to be expedited, we're not talking same-day analysis," he said.
For that reason state police have not stopped field testing altogether. Still, Merrigan said their approach has changed "radically" in response to the ascendence of fentanyl and related compounds in the heroin supply.
State police have a new field testing policy that has yet to be officially signed but is already applied when troopers are handling drugs they've seized, Merrigan said.
Any drugs that a trooper suspects to be fentanyl, based on evidence collected during an investigation, are to be sent directly to the lab for analysis. In the case of drugs not suspected to be fentanyl, the new policy still requires greater precaution.
Each barracks has set aside an area that is exclusively used for testing drugs, and troopers doing an analysis wear disposable lab coats, goggles, face masks and gloves to test any drug. That area is meticulously cleaned after testing, Merrigan said.
"Fentanyl can be safely tested in the field. Our policy is designed so that even our most inexperienced guys can field test fentanyl safely," Merrigan said.
The Burlington Police Department said it continues to field test drugs as well, but it too is exercising additional caution.
Morrison said Colchester is waiting to resume field testing until the Health Department releases guidance to police agencies about how to safely test fentanyl. A department spokesman said those guidelines are likely to be available before the end of the month.
Merrigan said drug dealers are showing that they too know the risks fentanyl presents by taking many of the same precautions as police. Troopers have recovered gloves, masks and other protective gear from suspected fentanyl distribution sites, he said.
At this point, it may be only drug users who don't realize the danger they face. "What recent history has shown us is that the users really don't know what they're ingesting," Morrison said.
Last year in Vermont there were 29 fatal overdoses where fentanyl was present, according to the Health Department. As of June there had already been 16 fentanyl-related deaths this year.
Morgan True is VTDigger's Burlington bureau chief covering the city and Chittenden County.