Did Fentanyl Dress Up as Cannabis for Halloween, or is it Just a Scary Story?

Cannabis has always gotten a bad wrap by certain aspects of the media, and the last year has been no different.  From true stories about legal cannabis companies growing unlicensed product in Canada, to half-truths about vape users dropping dead from cannabis oil, there’s no shortage of bad publicity when it comes to pot.

And while some of these reports are more accurate than others, this month’s viral story takes first place for the most sensational we’ve seen this year – last week, a rash of news stories began circulating about a deadly fentanyl-based substance being disguised and passed off as black market cannabis.

Here’s everything we know about the alleged situation so far:

How The Story Got Started

The viral article originated from a news station in Utah last Tuesday.  The station claimed it “obtained an internal law enforcement bulletin” warning police agencies about deadly black market drugs, disguised as marijuana and circulating throughout the country.

The report went on to explain that the substance is actually a concoction of dangerous narcotics, including fentanyl, meth and heroin, and has also apparently been seen in Ohio and Canada.

Like most sensational reports involving outbreaks of “deadly drugs”, the story caught on like wildfire, and has been widely published by media outlets.

What’s Really Going On?

The first thing that’s important to note is that, while the original story was indeed sensation, the station was also quick to point out that they had contacted law enforcement agencies in the state of Utah, and none of them were able to confirm actually seeing the product on the street.

Similarly, police in the Cincinnati area were also quick to deny that they had seen anything.  Newton Police Chief Tom Synan commented on the situation, saying “I would think it would be common that, as fentanyl spreads across the country, you’ll see these reports popping up because it’s the same thing we did when it first started coming up” (Synan was also quick to point out that these “trends” should still only be treated as rumors).

What’s interesting about the report is that it made reference to similar substances being found in Canada – so far Canadian police departments have neither confirmed seeing anything or even commented on the situation publicly.

Earlier Stories Of Cannabis And Fentanyl

This isn’t the first time that there have been stories in the media linking fentanyl and cannabis.  

The bottom line is that opioid abuse is a very real crisis.  According to the CDC, an average of 130 Americans die each day from an overdose on these drugs, and in 2017 alone about 68% of the total overdose deaths involved an opioid.

National drug overdose deaths involving any opioid
Image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

As a synthetic painkiller which is anywhere from 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, Fentanyl is particularly dangerous if abused.  As the public has been made increasingly aware of the opioid crisis, it’s not surprising why many fear that this particular drug may be added unknowingly to other substances.

And despite the fact that fentanyl and cannabis are two very different things, it’s also not surprising that they would be linked together in the public imagination.  Even as more and more countries and states legalize and experts recognize the profound health benefits of the plant, the last 50 years of prohibition have seriously tarnished its reputation.  

The reality is that there is still a serious stigma around pot in many communities, and it’s going to take time before that stigma is replaced with accurate education.

While reports of fentanyl disguised as pot appear to be relatively new, there have been media stories in the past about cannabis laced with fentanyl.  Earlier this year, there were reports out of upstate New York indicating that police officers had seized illicit cannabis and that it had tested positive for the opioid (the pot was apparently seized in a Walmart parking lot in the town of Thompson, prompting police to issue the warning).

But while there may certainly be individual cases of marijuana being laced with opioids, the important thing to point out (and something that’s been left out by a number of media reports) is that the incidents that have happened so far have been isolated cases.

Cannabis-Related Stories In The Media

While this story has been the most recent, you don’t have to look that hard to find other examples of news reports involving cannabis.  A few weeks ago, police in Pennsylvania issued a warning to parents cautioning them to be vigilant about edibles being mixed in with children’s Halloween candy.  

The warning came after Johnstown police arrested a man for distributing illegal drugs out of a rented storage unit, finding a number of cannabis-infused candies in the process (Pennsylvania is currently not one of the 11 states with legal recreational pot, however, Governor Tom Wolf has indicated that he would indeed support going legal).

And of course, there were the “vape death” incidents over the last few months, in which black market cannabis oil cut with vitamin E acetate caused a number of deaths due to respiratory illness across the country (unfortunately, many of the media reports have failed to distinguish between oil sold legally in dispensaries and oil sold illegally on the black market, which were most likely the culprit). 

The Bottom Line On Fentanyl And Cannabis

So, is fentanyl disguised as marijuana being sold on the black market?  

The short answer is maybe.  It is certainly possible that such a substance is being made and sold to unsuspecting buyers.  

It’s also entirely possible that more information will be made public by police in the near future, either in Utah or another jurisdiction.  

But one should consider the fact that this viral story originated from one news outlet, and is based on an alleged internal police bulletin that hasn’t even been made public yet.  In no way is this indicative of a trend, and until police departments across the country start publicly confirming that they’ve seen the substance and issue warnings about it, this rumor should be treated as just that – a rumor.