Last week, a disturbing social media post went viral in the Santa Cruz, California area, a remote, sometimes reclusive beach-and-college town surrounded by rugged hills covered in verdant redwoods about two hours south of downtown San Francisco.
There had been yet another fatal drug overdose, one of two that week and hundreds so far in 2021. What made the news was the rumor that in this case, the young man may have died after smoking fentanyl-laced marijuana, as Santa Cruz police Chief Andrew Mills told the local evening news broadcasts, which led with the story on Friday.
Drug overdoses are on the rise in Santa Cruz County, just like they are almost everywhere else. More than 93,000 Americans died after overdosing on drugs in 2020, an increase of nearly 30 percent.
And though drug use across-the-board did spike during the COVID-19 pandemic—while also disrupting and sometimes cutting vital services like substance-abuse treatment—the main culprit behind the steady and staggering increase in deaths is the wider-than-ever reach of powerful synthetic opioids, fentanyl and its many analogs.
Overdoses can be quickly triggered by small amounts of these drugs, “which,” as the New York Times recently noted, “are now often found mixed with stimulants like cocaine and meth.”
But what about weed? Reports of fentanyl poisoned weed have circulated for years, but almost exclusively in news reports or police press releases. And like the Santa Cruz story, these always seem to be a little vague.
That’s because fentanyl-tainted cannabis may not actually be a thing—and, if it is, rarer than the snow leopard. According to a review of data and some interviews with harm-reduction specialists, marijuana laced with fentanyl is either so rare as to pose a risk more remote than one in a million. Or it’s a total “myth,” yet one that keeps being repeated by law enforcement, public-health agencies, and the media.
Neither the United Nations nor the US National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA) mention fentanyl-tainted weed in their recent publications on the overdose epidemic, although the Santa Cruz County Health Department reports that fentanyl has indeed “been found… even in illicit cannabis.”
(Which means legal users need not worry: Even drug-averse public health authorities and addiction-medicine centers agree that there is certainly no fentanyl in legal, commercial cannabis.)
Whether it happened in Santa Cruz–well, actually, nobody can say.
On Twitter, police Chief Mills used his official account to post that the Santa Cruz overdose did happen after smoking fentanyl and marijuana together. However, standing before the television cameras on July 30, he was more circumspect, and went as far as to doubt the tainted weed theory as unsubstantiated speculation.
“We don’t know at this point and the reality is for me, why would somebody put an expensive drug in an unsuspecting person’s marijuana? It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” said Mills, adding that a toxicology report won’t come out for another month or two, and right now, the only “evidence” that tainted cannabis killed somebody is a rumor on social media.
Dennis Cauchon, the president of Harm Reduction Ohio, has been sounding the alarm over fentanyl contaminating other drugs since at least 2019.
In Ohio, he sees synthetic opioids tainting cocaine, methamphetamine, bunk pills—just about everything you can think of, with one notable exception: marijuana.
“Fentanyl and analogs are in pretty much all illegal drugs, except marijuana,” Cauchon said. “Fentanyl-laced marijuana is a myth.”
If it is a myth, it’s one with legs enough to spread to Providence, Rhode Island. In the northeast, fentanyl is absolutely in everything as well, according to harm reduction advocate and drug-policy reform Haley McKee, who says “heroin”—as in opiate drugs derived from poppy plants—no longer exists.
“It’s all fentanyl,” she said. As for tainted cannabis killing people, McKee says she’s definitely heard about it and believes it’s real—but could not immediately name a specific incident.
There are more than 200 million cannabis users in the world, according to the United Nations, compared to about 60 million opiate users. Data consistently shows that opiate users figure heavily in the overdose crisis—and there is no apocalypse of overdoses among cannabis users. This suggests that if fentanyl-tainted cannabis exists, it is a rare occurrence, less reliable than a winning lottery ticket.
Which is not to say it’s impossible.
Last summer, the Journal of the American Pharmacy Association published a case report that noted a 50-year-old man in treatment for opiate addiction. The man kept testing positive for fentanyl—but then started testing clean “after changing the source from which he bought cannabis,” according to the report, the lone example of cannabis tainted by fentanyl in the public literature available on PubMed. Even the report’s authors had no idea how likely fentanyl-tainted weed might be. It’s just not studied enough.
“Although the concern regarding adulteration of cannabis exists, there is no systematic monitoring or reliable data on its frequency or the magnitude of its effect,” they wrote.
Though some drug users seek out fentanyl, and carry naloxone or other overdose agonists as a precaution, most theories of accidental fentanyl contamination go something like this.
The retail-level drug seller has a diversified offering: cocaine, mushrooms, maybe some MDMA as well as weed and pills. Somehow surfaces—a bag, a gloved hand, whatever—become contaminated with fentanyl, that later contaminates other drugs.
Let’s say some fentnanyl-tainted cocaine touches a table or countertop. Then the next thing dumped out is a bag of weed.
The dirty coke dusts a couple of buds, the buds are bagged up for sale—it could happen! There is a non-zero chance.
But looking at the data, the chance may be closer to zero than to 1, a true one-in-a-million shot.