For years, law enforcement has been claiming that dealers are lacing weed with fentanyl, the scariest possibility as synthetic opioids flood the illicit drug supply. Then last week, a public health alert reported a "lab confirmed" case.
The problem is the evidence is weak and anecdotal but can still be used to justify the ongoing war on drugs, experts told VICE News.
"It does feed into a moral panic around drug use,” said Dr. Kim Sue, addiction physician-anthropologist at Yale University and medical director for the National Harm Reduction Coalition.
The Nov. 15 alert, sent out by Connecticut health and law enforcement officials, said fentanyl was found in a sample of cannabis seized by police responding to an overdose in Plymouth in October.
It claimed it’s the “first lab confirmed case of marijuana with fentanyl” in the state—and possibly the country—and “strongly advised” all public health and harm reduction workers to warn weed users about the possible dangers of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 50 times more potent than heroin.
Respected public figures and media outlets jumped on it. “Forensic lab confirms cannabis sample laced with fentanyl amidst rise in opioid overdoses in cannabis users who report no opioid use,” tweeted Stanford University addiction researcher Keith Humphreys.
“Disturbing and scary as hell,” tweeted actress Rosie Perez.
But doctors and drug policy experts said the case is extremely rare, and fentanyl-laced weed remains largely a myth spread by police. Even if there was a sample of weed with fentanyl in it, it’s more likely due to accidental contamination than intentional lacing, they said.
Even Robert Lawlor, a drug intelligence officer with the Connecticut Overdose Response Strategy team, which sent out the alert, admitted the risk of cannabis being contaminated with fentanyl on a large scale “is probably not that great."
He described reports of fentanyl-laced weed as an “urban legend” that often doesn’t get taken seriously. But he said we don’t know how pervasive the problem is because cops aren’t seizing and testing cannabis to the same degree they do with other drugs.
“It’s a public health gap and it’s a public safety gap in this knowledge of what is actually occurring in the marijuana supply,” he said, adding “maybe we need to start paying attention to these rumors.”
The health alert said between July and October, there were 39 cases in Connecticut where “only marijuana use was reported but naloxone was required.”
But Lawlor said those reports were based on “anecdotal” observations from medical personnel on scene.
“There are no confirmations that that is exactly what occurred,” he said.
Sue said she views these types of health alerts with “a lot of skepticism.”
She said the report doesn’t provide any information about how the testing was done or give detailed results. She also said that it “doesn’t make a lot of sense” for weed to be laced with fentanyl—there’s contention over how effective fentanyl would be if it was smoked in weed.
Plus, just because first responders administered naloxone, used to reverse opioid overdoses, doesn’t mean it was required, Sue said. It can also have a placebo effect.
“Many times... people are going to administer naloxone to someone who is literally sleeping because they’re drunk, ”she said. “That is not an indication for naloxone.”
Sue said it’s important to look for other indicators that someone is overdosing, including if they’re not breathing, turning blue, or aren’t responsive to a chest rub.
It’s possible people who took both cannabis and fentanyl did not want to tell authorities they used opioids out of fear of being arrested, she added.
As for testing, Lawlor said a gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) was used.
The GC-MS test is the “gold standard,” said Dr. Nabarun Dasgupta, a senior scientist at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, but more information, including how much fentanyl was found in the sample, would have been more useful.
Dasgupta said he has never come across a credible case of weed being intentionally laced with fentanyl, but it’s possible the cannabis from the sample taken was accidentally contaminated by a dealer.
“This is such a dramatic announcement that they really need to back it up with the analytic test results before any health personnel or law enforcement I've spoken with would take it seriously,” he said.
This isn’t the first time police have been accused of spreading misinformation surrounding drugs, and fentanyl in particular. Houston Police Chief Troy Finner recently walked back claims that a security guard at the deadly Astroworld Festival passed out after being pricked in the neck, potentially with drugs. In August, hundreds of drug experts complained about a video from the San Diego County Sheriff’s department that purported to show an officer being revived with naloxone after overdosing from being exposed to fentanyl (it’s not possible to overdose from skin contact or passive exposure to fentanyl).
News organizations are also to blame for contributing to the moral panic, often parroting misleading drug information coming from authorities.
Over the weekend, the New York Times published a story claiming a dealer was “spritzing liquid fentanyl onto baking sheets of marijuana,” creating a product that’s being requested more often; the article provided no more details about where, how, or why that’s happening.
In 2019, local police in Ontario claimed two teenagers may have overdosed on opioid-laced weed, but later admitted they didn’t have evidence supporting that theory. The claim was repeated on Fox Business Network by legal cannabis executive Bruce Linton.
Politicians and news outlets also often describe amounts of fentanyl seized in terms of how many thousands of people it could kill—a trope that experts have criticized as being sensational.
“It’s not a meaningful thing to say but the public doesn’t know that and it sounds terrifying,” said Claire Zagorski, program coordinator at the Pharmacy Addictions Research and Medicine Program at the University of Texas at Austin, adding these statements are used to bolster support for border control.
“This kind of crap is causing us to see patients in the ER, in terrible pain, and refusing fentanyl because they’re convinced it will kill them or get them hooked.”
In a week when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than 100,000 Americans died of an overdose in a 12-month period, Sue said the alert about fentanyl-laced weed is an unnecessary distraction.
“We are sick of this,” she said. “We are dealing with actual overdoses. They’re really pulling people who are in the trenches away, having to chase their bullshit.”
Lawlor pushed back on the criticism that the public health bulletin was fear-mongering.
“I don't know where there's alarmist language in there,” he said. “It’s saying what we know and what we have a positive confirmation for.”
Sheila Vakharia, deputy director, department of research and academic engagement for the Drug Policy Alliance said part of the problem with police disseminating drug information is they have a vested interest in prohibition.
“They are invested in upholding narratives that drugs are lethal and dangerous and we need to crack down and we need to justify more enforcement,” she said.
If anything, she said the idea that cannabis—or any drug—could be contaminated with fentanyl is an argument for regulation and legalization because people will know exactly what they’re getting.
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