In the latest chapter of an ongoing pattern, a fentanyl-laced cannabis scare in Vermont turned out to be a false alarm. Two cases of cannabis suspected of being laced with fentanyl in the state were cleared of the drug by a lab weeks later, after first causing a false-positive for the drug.
“Fentanyl-laced marijuana blamed for overdose in Vermont,” local station WCAX reported on November 21. Brattleboro Police Department (BPD) told the media they revived a patient using CPR and several doses of Narcan—the opioid-overdose antidote naloxone—after the cannabis reportedly tested positive for fentanyl. The person told police they hadn’t taken any opioids—just cannabis.
The news quickly went national. Police searched a residence in Brattleboro on November 30 and said that they found several containers of what they believed to be fentanyl-laced cannabis, the Brattleboro Reformer reported. Three people in Brattleboro were arrested in connection to the crime, US News reported on December 2.
The cannabis was sent to a lab for confirmation of the presence of the drug, police said. But both samples from the two incidents turned out to have no fentanyl, after all. “The seized marijuana in both incidents was submitted to a forensic laboratory where testing was conducted,” the Brattleboro Police Department said in a statement. “BPD was notified no fentanyl was found in the marijuana in either case.”
“BPD stands by its previous public safety advisory that it is wise for consumers of marijuana to know the source and history of any marijuana they ingest,” the department added. Vermont legalized recreational marijuana in 2018 for adults 21 and older, and the topic is frequently a headline.
The same thing happened a year ago in New York state, when officials said they found the drug in cannabis, and then a week or so later determined it wasn’t. “Non-pharmaceutical fentanyl has not been found mixed into cannabis in New York City,” the city health department clarified. The New York State Department of Health also clarified “it is unlikely to be in weed.”
Harvard-trained Peter Grinspoon, M.D. is an Internist and medical cannabis specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an Instructor at Harvard Medical School. He is author of books such as Free Refills: A Doctor Confronts His Addiction and son of cannabis activist Dr. Lester Grinspoon.
When unverified leads of fentanyl-laced cannabis emerge, “It creates fear,” Dr. Grinspoon told High Times. “Whenever there’s information about drugs—particularly cannabis—which is incredible, it makes it much harder for public health officials to get information that is credible out there. It’s likeThe Boy Who Cried Wolf—so it’s like the D.A.R.E. program. They said that cannabis does this, this, this and this, and teenagers didn’t believe it because it was against their lived experience. It sort of disqualified their other messages about drugs which are actually more dangerous—like heroin or alcohol. It just discredits the ‘official’ sources of information.”
“It also confuses people when they get conflicting messages,” Dr. Grinspoon said. Dr. Grinspoon added that administering Narcan, however, is not dangerous to a non opioid-user.
Is Fentanyl-Laced Pot Feasible?
One factor is the profitability—whether or not it makes sense financially for a drug dealer to spray fentanyl on cannabis. In addition, it would be extremely wasteful on the part of a drug user to consume the drug in that way.
“The story is bizarre anyways, because it’s unclear if you can consume fentanyl in that way—by smoking,” Dr. Grinspoon said. “Some drugs you can smoke, like cocaine, freebased as crack. But fentanyl tends to disintegrate starting at about 500 degrees [F], and it fully disintegrates at about 1000 degrees. When you smoke—you’re talking about 2,000 degrees.”
He didn’t completely rule out the credibility of these stories. “Maybe you can absorb some of it,” he said. “But it’s not really an obvious way for people to be ingesting fentanyl.” Fentanyl, however, is readily available on the streets and is frequently—and dangerously—mislabeled as other opioids.
“At the same time, fentanyl is turning up in all kinds of places where it hasn’t before—something like two-thirds of the pills people are buying on the streets,” Dr. Grinspoon said. “Oxycodones, Vicodins now have fentanyl in them, which is really awful. A lot of patients are testing positive for fentanyl and they’re not on any opiate use. Then it turns out they’re on cocaine and that’s where the fentanyl is coming from. So it is true that fentanyl is everywhere, which is awful and dangerous.”
Taking any sort of opioid off the street is quite literally rolling the dice, with the sheer prevalence of fentanyl.
“Given that fentanyl is practically everywhere else, it’s not difficult to imagine it in cannabis—but at the same time, it just doesn’t make any sense,” Dr. Grinspoon said. “Cannabis users aren’t per se generally interested in fentanyl. It’s always been an urban myth. It’s not impossible, but usually turns out to be an urban myth.”
In a separate incident in Connecticut, a rash of overdoses across the state since July may be linked to cannabis laced with fentanyl; a recent overdose in Plymouth, is the first lab-confirmed case of fentanyl mixed with cannabis ever found in Connecticut “and potentially across the country,” according to the state health commissioner. That case is still developing.