Last August, 50-year-old Eric Weil called 911. He had taken in a friend's son who was struggling with opioid addiction. This help was offered on the condition that the young man bring no drugs into the house, but he did. When Weil discovered a packet of white powder in the guest room, he called for help.
He didn't expect to be arrested himself. He didn't expect to be charged with a felony, but he was, according to the New York Times.
When the officers arrived, Weil tried to hand over the packet of powder but the officers told him to drop it on his driveway. He followed their instructions, but picked it back up. He later said he was concerned that his dog or his chickens would become exposed.
At that point, some of the powder got onto his finger, so he blew it off. The officers describe him as having blown "a large cloud" of powder in their direction. One officer was exposed to fentanyl.
Weil was accused of using a deadly weapon and was charged with reckless conduct. He's only one of more than 10 people who have been charged in similar circumstances, according to the Times. People have been charged with crimes ranging from wanton endangerment to assault in at least 7 other states.
Is blowing fentanyl toward someone actually dangerous?
When police accuse someone of putting them in danger, the stakes are high. Yet it's unclear that the officers were in any danger in this case or any of the others where people were accused of mishandling fentanyl.
The Times reviewed the evidence available in these cases and found that none of the incidents caused any symptoms of overdose, much less a death. Moreover, medical professionals say that the incidence of harm from contact with fentanyl and carfentanil is very low, despite numerous news stories.
"Everybody knows it's a dangerous substance," insists the chief of police where Weil was arrested. "I've seen it on the news."
Yet for an opioid to poison someone through contact "would require extraordinary circumstances, and those extraordinary circumstances would be very hard to achieve," according to a medical researcher. The drug would need to be either dissolved in liquid or formulated in a specific way, according to a scholarly article found by the Times.
And doctors worry that this false expectation of harm from contact with opioids could result in real harm. Opioid users -- and bystanders like Weil -- could easily be stigmatized. Worse, police and first responders could refuse to touch or interact with people.
Ultimately, people like Weil will continue to be charged with crimes despite having apparently had no intent to cause harm.