Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is fueling a drug epidemic that is killing Americans daily and causing panic in the streets amid reports that the drug has started contaminating other substances like cocaine and weed.
Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, and experts point to its potency as a major driver of overdose deaths gripping the country even as millions in resources have been poured into fighting a losing battle against opioids. Viewed as a cheaper, more efficient way for suppliers to cut their product, the drug started worming its way into the heroin supply over the past few years, and opioid-related overdose deaths have skyrocketed alongside its prevalence.
Opioid overdoses account for 63 percent of all fatal drug overdoses in the United States. In 2015, the latest year for which statistics are available, 33,091 died of opioid overdose – quadrupling the number of deaths seen just a decade before. Drugs now kill more people in America than guns, so much so that an American dies of a drug overdose every 11 minutes.
It’s fentanyl that experts say is driving the increasing deaths, so it’s no surprise people started to panic this week when police pointed to fentanyl-laced marijuana as the cause of a man’s near-death in Massachusetts, a state where cannabis was legalized for recreational use last December.
A similar situation sparked concern after an Ohio Police Department posted on Facebook that three overdose patients seemed to be on fentanyl, even though they claimed to have only smoked weed.
And who could forget about the Ohio police officer who overdosed after brushing what was believed to fentanyl or carfentanil (an even more potent synthetic opioid) off of his uniform?
Police and health departments have responded with dire warnings for drug users.
After the Massachusetts man was revived with Narcan, an opioid blocker that reverses the effects of an overdose, Yarmouth Police said they "believe that it is possible that the marijuana was laced with fentanyl, which police are starting to see more and more across the country."
A similar warning was issued by New York City public health officials.
“All New Yorkers who use drugs, even if only occasionally, should know their drugs may be mixed with fentanyl,” Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said.
In Ohio, a county coroner warned, “We have seen fentanyl mixed with cocaine – we have also seen fentanyl mixed with marijuana.”
But is all just reefer madness? Researchers think it could be.
Lloyd Johnston, who runs the U.S. government's massive youth drug survey out of the University of Michigan, told Vice that laced weed has a well-documented history, but said the chances of finding bud laced with fentanyl seem remote.
The Ohio case where police posted about the men overdosing after smoking weed? Police later admitted the men likely took other drugs as well.
In New York, critics have said it is impossible to tell if overdose victims have multiple drugs in their system because they took tainted drugs or because they simply did different kinds of drugs.
It’s too early to tell what happened in the case of the Cape Cod man who overdosed after smoking pot, but Kirk Maxey, who works with law enforcement agencies like the DEA to test suspected synthetic opioids, said that not only would such a mixture be rare – it might not even be scientifically possible.
"Documenting the pipe chemistry of fentanyl in leaf material would be a research paper. And I don't think it's been done yet," he told Vice.