Over this past year, Instagram posts, news articles and word-of-mouth stories have all whispered the same thing: cocaine, pharmaceuticals and even cannabis are being laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is one of the leading causes of an increase in overdoses.
Drug overdoses have devastated the U.S. this past year, with reports of more than 100,000 deaths, the most amount of overdoses ever in the US. Fentanyl is the major driver for the 28% increase the past year.
While there is significant evidence that fentanyl is being mixed with other narcotics, recent investigations out of Connecticut and New York have conflicting views on whether or not fentanyl-laced cannabis is a cause for concern.
Art Stone, a detective in the LAPD Gang and Narcotics Division, said he hasn’t seen a growing trend towards fentanyl-laced cannabis. “I can’t say that we’ve seen a whole lot in the way of fentanyl in marijuana,” he said, “but, in today’s drug market, just assume that it can show up anywhere.”
However, Madeline Hilliard, CEO of Trojan Awareness Combatting Overdose( or TACO), said she has seen contaminated cannabis in the field. As an ambulance driver, she has been on the scene of a deadly overdose where the cause of death was ultimately because of cannabis laced with fentanyl.
Hilliard believes that most cases of fentanyl-laced cannabis occur because of cross-contamination. “The marijuana is being divided up for packaging and selling on the same table that fentanyl was previously being packaged on and the table, or the surface that all that was happening on, was not adequately sanitized,” she said. The lethal dose for fentanyl is 2mg, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, which is the equivalent of two grains of sand, Hilliard said.
These types of overdoses can occur when users purchase their cannabis from a street dealer rather than from a regulated dispensary.
TACO, an organization that advocates for drug awareness and harm reduction, provides literature on Instagram and resources for students at USC, UCLA and UCSB. The group says there are some essential things students can do to protect themselves and others from overdoses. For people who are using anything not purchased from a pharmacy or dispensary, “It’s ideal that they would test it with the fentanyl test strips beforehand,” said Hilliard. “Start small, don’t use alone and ensure that they have naloxone on hand.” Naloxone, or Narcan, is an antidote treatment for opioid overdoses.
Dr. Daryl L. Davies, USC professor of pharmacy, said that cannabis dealers would probably not intentionally mix fentanyl with weed.” Illegal sellers would rarely do this as there is a ‘cost’ of the addition of fentanyl,” Davies said.
However, in instances where weed has been mixed with fentanyl, it is possible that a consumer is mixing the two substances for a group without informing that group. “The end-user, or someone that thinks they are helping make a product more ‘euphoric,’ may add without telling their friends about this,” Davies said.
Davies mentioned there was recently fentanyl-laced cannabis identified in New York, but he doubts that it will become a trend.
“There has been a significant—maybe 35% increase in opioid deaths over this past year, mostly attributed to the spiking of other drugs by fentanyl,” Davies said in an email.
Stone said he has also seen an increase in overdoses due to counterfeit narcotics and fentanyl mixed with other substances. “I think most of the overdoses that we see that involve fentanyl are in the pill form,” he said. Consumers believe they are purchasing black-market Percocet or Xanax, but really they are buying inaccurately stamped fentanyl, said Stone.
TACO provides fentanyl test strips for students every day at 2626 S Figueroa St. They also hand out naloxone to USC students every Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the corner of 28th Street and University Avenue.