Fentanyl in Marijuana? Probable Reefer Madness

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One of the most timely arguments for marijuana legalization is the drug overdose crisis ripping through every corner of America.

More than 33,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose in 2015, more than any other year on record. The 2016 death toll hasn’t yet been released, but all indications are that it will be even higher.

Most of the deaths, and the meteoric rise in overdose deaths year-over-year, are attributed to synthetic opiates like fentanyl and carfentanil—both of which are many times stronger than heroin, and both of which are easily acquired from clandestine labs overseas via online drug marketplaces on the dark web.

It’s worth noting, again and again until policymakers take heed, that heroin users don’t want fentanyl. As a study at a safe-injection site in Canada revealed, when drug users know they’re using fentanyl, they use less and are less likely to overdose.

But what to do in the short term, to stop or at least slow down this madness? Nothing appears to have worked so far, not shutting down prescription pill mills, and not shutting down the fentanyl suppliers. Perhaps another approach would work—one that reduces the demand for opiates in the first place.  

One striking feature of the crisis is that in the hardest hit states—Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire among them—it’s very difficult to acquire marijuana. This is significant.

Studies from several states where marijuana is available show that having cannabis available reduces both the frequency and the fatality of opiate overdoses. Where weed is an option—and while there’s no doubt recreational users smoke weed to escape quotidian struggles in the same way heroin users get high to check out, cannabis is also an effective treatment for pain, the main medical application for opiates—fewer people use opiates and fewer people die.

But now, thanks to a Republican senator from Ohio and the coroner serving Cincinnati, this easy concept is becoming needlessly complicated.

On Monday, during a press conference with Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman and Lakshmi Sammarco, the coroner of Hamilton County, Ohio, the dueo announced that fentanyl is appearing in marijuana.

“We have seen fentanyl mixed with cocaine, we have also seen fentanyl mixed with marijuana,” Sammarco said, according to Columbus, Ohio-based WCMH.

Pressed for details, Sammarco could not say how many instances of fentanyl-mixed cannabis authorities had encountered, or how many resultant overdoses there had been. She did say that there had been 297 fatal overdoses so far in 2017 in Hamilton County—compared to 403 in all of 2016—and that users of all “street drugs” should beware. 

“Essentially, the message we’ve tried to get out there,” she said, “is if you are using any form of street drugs, count on them having some form of synthetic opioid mixed in.”

This warning echoes others made elsewhere by public-health officials, including in New York City, where the cocaine supply is allegedly tainted with fentanyl. However, “any street drugs” is the widest possible net, meaning the warning also smacks of the worst kind of drug war hysteria made during the Reagan “Just Say No” years.  

It is also wholly undocumented.

According to a review by the Cincinnati Enquirer, which asked the DEA and local narcotics cops, there has yet to be a single recorded instance of fentanyl-laced cannabis. Unless Sammarco has sources to which law enforcement is not privy, it appears this latest marijuana hysteria began with social media.  

As the Enquirer noted, ahead of Monday’s press conference, there have been several posts floating around the internet warning about fentanyl in weed, and at least one police spokesman contacted by the paper said a parent had called police to warn about fentanyl in pot.

But as a writer for Merry Jane pointed out, this has been a line pushed by Portman before. In March, Portman issued a similar warning about fentanyl in cannabis, attributing it that time to a narcotics detective.  

Portman has been less than bad on the fentanyl crisis—he’s tried to make it easier for cops to track fentanyl packages coming from overseas—but it is true that like other Ohio Republicans, including Gov. John Kasich, he has not been a friend to marijuana legalization.  

Not that it matters too much.

Ohio is slowly but surely moving towards a workable medical marijuana marketplace. Would-be growers and sellers are vying for licenses, and cities and counties are deciding whether they want to allow dispensaries and cultivation sites.

Relief won’t be immediate. The first licensed sales in the state won’t begin until September 2018, and it’s still uncertain how many users will actually be able to access all that marijuana. In any case, there will be plenty of illicit marijuana sales in the meantime.

In its long and tortured history in America, marijuana has been tarred with every brush imaginable. Weed causes madness, it ruins youth, it ruins your life. It was perhaps only inevitable that it would be tied to the opiate overdose crisis, but until there’s definitive proof of a fentanyl-laced joint, it’s best to relegate Portman’s warning to the dustbin of reefer madness.

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