For years, law enforcement nationwide has made claims of marijuana laced with fentanyl, usually in the name of public health and based off of trace evidence.
That phenomenon hit home last month, when the Brattleboro Police Department reported two incidents of suspected fentanyl-laced marijuana. Those were disputed Thursday, when forensic lab results found no fentanyl in either case.
And while Brattleboro police’s initial reports sparked significant local interest and concern before the lab results came back negative, the department says it has no plans to change its strategy for informing the public going forward.
But cannabis advocates say such reports can exaggerate the likelihood and danger of unknowingly consuming marijuana laced with fentanyl.
“I think it’s clear at this point that if such instances occur, they are a shockingly rare occurrence ...,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the NORML Foundation, a national marijuana advocate. “This most recent claim [in Brattleboro] seems to be simply the latest ... in a long line of sensationalism and fear-mongering put forward by police about cannabis and those who use it.”
The local reports
Fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency — is a prescription drug that is also made and used illegally.
It’s the latest drug at the forefront of the opioid epidemic, making up a majority of the overdose-related deaths nationwide in recent years, including in Vermont and New Hampshire.
Two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal depending on a person’s body size, tolerance and past usage, the DEA says, and counterfeit fentanyl pills can range from .02 to 5.1 milligrams per tablet.
Because of its potency and low cost, drug dealers have been mixing fentanyl with other drugs including heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine, increasing the likelihood of a fatal dose, according to the DEA.
And in the past year, drug users have started mixing drugs with fentanyl intentionally to get a better high, local substance-use treatment providers have said.
But when it comes to marijuana, there has been little to no concrete evidence supporting that drug is being laced with fentanyl, according to numerous national media reports.
In Brattleboro, police reported the first case of suspected fentanyl-laced cannabis on Nov. 21, after someone who said they had only smoked marijuana needed to be revived from an overdose, according to a news release from the department at the time. Police said then that a field test showed fentanyl in the person’s remaining marijuana.
Smoking marijuana in a private residence is legal in Vermont for those 21 and up. Vermont residents can also grow up to two mature marijuana plants or four immature plants.
About 10 days later, Brattleboro police reported that three people were arrested and charged following the execution of a search warrant, where cannabis — suspected of containing fentanyl — was seized.
In the first case, police framed the local case as part of a trend, saying that they’d been “cautioned about the presence of fentanyl-laced marijuana in some states,” according to the initial release.
The marijuana from both incidents was submitted to a forensic laboratory, and no fentanyl was found in either batch, Drug Enforcement Agency spokesman Asa Morse told The Sentinel on Thursday morning.
Brattleboro police issued a news release shortly after.
In a separate email to The Sentinel on Thursday, Brattleboro Police Capt. Mark Carignan said he felt the initial news reports on the two incidents had “grown beyond what we actually said — because everyone is always itching for a headline about police.”
“We warned people who smoke [marijuana] legally to know where it comes from — that’s it. This is about harm reduction,” he continued.
Carignan added the department will continue to alert the public of these potential dangers. However, in response to the forensic lab results, he said police will not be conducting field tests on cannabis anymore — aside for the presence of THC, the main hallucinogen found in the drug.
Field tests are presumptive and sensitive, meaning they could pick up extremely small traces of drugs, including fentanyl, according to Trisha Conti, director of the state-run Vermont Forensic Laboratory.
If a dealer, for example, sold marijuana and fentanyl, there potentially could be cross-contamination between the two drugs, like if they were packaged on the same table.
Because of the tests’ sensitivity, they do not “conclusively indicate beyond a reasonable doubt that [a certain drug] is present,” according to Carignan.
“Field test kits rely on a simple chemical reaction to indicate if the suspected drug is present,” Carignan said in a Nov. 26 email. “It is not as accurate as a forensic lab test, and is not admissible in a criminal trial.”
Hinsdale Police Chief Charles Rataj echoed this, saying that it doesn’t take much to make a field test come back positive for a certain drug.
However, he said with something as lethal as fentanyl, a small amount could be all it takes to send someone into an overdose, especially if they aren’t used to the potency of hard drugs.
“When you’re dealing with pure fentanyl, it’s so dangerous that it could knock you down and kill you,” Rataj said. “It doesn’t take very much to make a test kit work, but at the same time, fentanyl is so dangerous.”
No evidence of trend
Area substance-use treatment providers and national experts said that they don’t believe fentanyl-laced weed is the latest drug trend, and that such instances — logistically — wouldn’t have an obvious benefit for the dealer or user, neither of whom would likely want to risk an overdose on opioid-tainted pot.
Sam Lake, executive director of the Keene Serenity Center, said he’s had clients of the recovery facility come in saying they had used both marijuana and fentanyl, but that it was intentional.
“No one has come in here and said ‘Oh my God, I had marijuana that was laced with fentanyl’ ...,” he said. “Most of the time, people know and are doing it on purpose.”
But at The Doorway in Keene, Executive Director Nelson Hayden said he has had a few people test positive for both marijuana and fentanyl, and that the people said they hadn’t been using the opioid.
However, a few incidents don’t necessarily indicate a trend, according to Dr. Lewis Nelson, chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
“One case does not an epidemic make. Even a few cases,” he said. “We have a lot of examples in the drug-use world where you find a few cases, but it’s not representative of a trend. We need a lot more reporting and time to see where this goes.”
The logistics of a dealer lacing cannabis with fentanyl, and the potential benefits of doing so, are also shaky, experts say.
If a dealer were to cut marijuana with fentanyl, it could be done by adding fentanyl in powder or liquid form to the leaves of the weed, Hayden said. He added that injecting the fentanyl intravenously would give the user the quickest and most powerful high, which couldn’t be done with cannabis.
Research suggests that while you may still get a high from smoking fentanyl — like you would when using marijuana — lighting it up could dissipate its effects because of its low combustion point.
Armentano, of the NORML Foundation, added that he doesn’t see what the benefit of adulterating weed would be for the dealer.
“I can’t imagine any scenario where there would be a benefit, either financial or otherwise, for a dealer to taint their product with a potentially deadly substance,” he said.
So how worried should marijuana users be? Not very, according to experts.
To be safe, experts said people could buy weed from a recreational dispensary, which are legal in Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine, even though the prices are often higher than a dealer’s.
“I certainly wouldn’t panic over it now,” Nelson, of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said, “but every time you take a drug, you are taking a risk of something happening.”