CINCINNATI -- A Hamilton County judge signed an "unprecedented" order Wednesday granting immunity from prosecution to anyone turns over drugs that may cause an overdose.
As rare as the order may be, it's just the latest move in a high-stakes battle that has southwest Ohio law enforcement officials and fire responders feverishly working to save addicts' lives.
Court of Common Pleas Presiding Judge Robert P. Ruehlman granted the order as Cincinnati has been rocked in recent weeks by a particularly lethal blend of heroin mixed with carfentanil, a synthetic opioid thousands of times more powerful than morphine and used to tranquilize elephants.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, Sheriff Jim Neil and Commissioner Dennis Deters presented the immunity request to Ruehlman in court Wednesday morning. The prosecutor and judge said the blanket immunity order was unprecedented for Hamilton County, at least in their memory.
"I've never seen it," Prosecutor Deters said.
Carfentanil is cut into heroin to intensify the user's high, and it's extremely potent -- 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Prosecutor Deters said it was his understanding drug dogs can't even sniff the envelopes of carfentanil or they would die. In some cases, first responders have had to use six doses of Narcan, an anti-opiate treatment, to revive carfentanil users.
"Ultimately, we've got to stop the supply," he said. "It's our belief that this is being mailed in from foreign countries."
Under the immunity order, a person can take drugs they believe may cause an overdose to any police or sheriff's station in the county -- no questions asked. That person won't be prosecuted, but the agency must notify the prosecutor's office and take steps to ensure the drugs are disposed of safely. The drugs can be submitted for testing.
"We may have family members who find it," Prosecutor Deters said. "Their child may be an addict, their husband may be an addict, and this gives them the vehicle to turn it in without fear of prosecution."
Watch his entire statement to the judge:
Prosecutor Deters said Hamilton County had 414 drug overdose deaths last year; since June this year, there have been 177. Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco said her office has eight confirmed carfentanil deaths and five more suspected to involve the drug.
"The ultimate goal is to get the carfentanil, heroin, fentanyl, whatever is out there off the streets -- that's the goal," Sammarco said. "And if a neighbor, a child, an aunt, a grandmother, a grandfather, anybody finds this stuff, you don't have to know what's in it. We've already tested several samples, and we've proven there's carfentanil on the streets. So don't even worry about what it is. You find the stuff? Worry that it could be extremely deadly, bring it in, turn it in."
Anyone handling heroin or carfentanil should wear gloves or at least put it in a zip-top plastic bag, then wash their hands.
"Don't touch your eyes, nose or mouth," Sammarco said. "Just be very careful with it. Even though it could be straight heroin, it could have some carfentanil in it. We just want people to be safe."
Sandi Kuehn, the president and CEO of Center for Addiction Treatment, said there are 20,000 people addicted to drugs in Hamilton County. She said she was hopeful about the immunity plan.
"If it brings 2 grams of something deadly off the street, why not? It's not costing us anything, basically, at all," Kuehn said.
Other developments this week:
Newtown Police Chief Tom Synan, the leader of Hamilton County's heroin task force, joined a growing number of officials in calling on Gov. John Kasich to declare a public health emergency and allocate more resources to southwest Ohio's battle against the heroin epidemic.
"We're bleeding profusely and we need a tourniquet," Synan said Tuesday. "It's not going to take a Band-Aid -- and it's not going to take someone telling us to put pressure on the wound and it will all be better. We need action and we need it now."
And at a Tuesday hearing of the Cincinnati City Council, WCPO learned the following key statistics:
Nearly 300 overdoses have been reported in Cincinnati since Aug. 19.
The number of overdose deaths in Hamilton County was nearly four times as high as the number of homicides in 2015.
Officials say city medics encounter about 16 overdoses per day, something the fire chief calls a strain on resources.
"The medics are being used so much so we're at the point where we need to look at putting more medics on the street to handle it because it's basically overwhelming our system at this time," said Chief Richard Braun of the Cincinnati Fire Department.
The Drug Enforcement Agency is taking notice and going after dealers.
"We've seen text messages back and forth with dealers and the users asking 'Hey, let me know how the new product is, hey be careful with that, hey don't use too much,'" said DEA special agent Tim Reagan.