Drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine are commonly laced with fentanyl. Photo from IDanielWaleczek.
This article was updated on Dec. 15th with a correction; further analysis showed no traces of the opioid in the sample from Vermont.
Recently, Vermont found its first case of fentanyl-laced cannabis. Fentanyl-laced drugs have become an increasing issue as states are seeing more opioid overdoses. These are the first reports of fentanyl-laced cannabis in the state and officials are scratching their heads.
Fentanyl in Vermont
Until dispensaries are open, Vermonters only have access to an unregulated cannabis market. Photo from Geralt.
On November 20th, Brattleboro Police reported their first case of fentanyl-laced cannabis, which resulted in an overdose, reports the Reformer. Luckily, the person survived and said that they had no intention of using opioids that day. They believed that they were smoking regular cannabis.
However, in a press release from the Brattleboro Police Department, officials confirmed that the cannabis did not contain traces of the opioid.
WCAX reported that over the last 10 years in Vermont, fatal overdoses have been on the rise. During the pandemic, they increased by 38%. They say fentanyl-laced drugs were a likely cause.
In a news report by Channel 5, Officers advised people to find out where their cannabis comes from. However, while voters approved adult-use cannabis nearly three years ago, the state has yet to introduce legal retail options for consumers. In the meantime, recent proposals in Vermont suggest that recreational cannabis won’t be available till May 2022.
“We need to legalize cannabis so we can test, and regulate it so it can be safely bought and sold,” said Andre Briel, local Vermonter.
Emerald spoke with Briel about his experience with fentanyl-laced drugs in Vermont. He says that he heard of someone who died from fentanyl-laced cocaine; but this was the first he knew about fentanyl in cannabis.
Theresa Vezina is a Harm Reduction Program Manager at the Vermont Committee for AIDS Resources, Education and Services (CARES ), and believes that it could be a case of cross-contamination. She says it can happen unintentionally while lacing other drugs in powder forms, “where the powder is on a surface, and then the cannabis is then placed on the same surface.”
Overdoses in Connecticut
Vermont’s Brattleboro police arrested three people connected to the recent fentanyl-laced cannabis, reports WMUR.
But Vermont is not the only state with this issue. Connecticut has had nearly 40 fentanyl overdoses from cannabis since the summer, according to NBC Connecticut. Each consumer said they had only used cannabis.
Connecticut has also not fully legalized recreational access to cannabis. The state also has had even more of a problem with fentanyl than Vermont.
According to Forbes, Connecticut authorities reported the first documented case of cannabis containing fentanyl on November 15th. The reason why officials are finding fentanyl in cannabis is unclear to many.
Dr. Joseph Palmer is a physician and researcher at New York University Langone Health who specializes in drug use. He told Forbes that, “even if the marijuana samples collected at the scene do test positive this is only one step closer to suggesting that it was actually contaminated with fentanyl.”
Opioid overdose from cannabis consumption is unexpected since fentanyl is usually laced into other drugs. Fentanyl is much more likely to be present in other drugs.
“Detecting fentanyl is not a big surprise to us, it was just the manner in which it was found laced on cannabis,” says Michael Rickenback, Deputy Director of Chemical Analysis, to NBC Connecticut.
He says that fentanyl is one of the top five drugs that officials bring in as evidence.
Officials speculate that illicit dealers may lace the highly-addictive substance with cannabis as a way to compete with the legal market.
Fentanyl Overdoses are a Nationwide Crisis
The CDC says that fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. It is a major contributor to fatal and nonfatal overdoses in the U.S. It kills approximately 150 people every day, and even small amounts can lead to an overdose.
According to American Addiction Centers, cannabis is less likely to be laced with other drugs. But there are still instances where officials found cannabis tainted with other psychoactive drugs like cocaine, heroin, or LSD. While the list included many other substances, it did not include fentanyl as a likely drug dealers laced in cannabis.
Recent reports from the American Medical Associations (AMA) show that the nation’s opioid overdose and death epidemic continues to worsen due to the rise of fentanyl-contaminated substances.
Its intended use is pain relief for patients with either severe or chronic pain. Yet according to the DEA, 42% of pills tested for fentanyl contained a lethal dose of 2 mg. Because of its potency and low costs, drug dealers often mix it into other drugs like heroin, meth, and cocaine.
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, high potency and slow elimination of fentanyl in the body makes it so that overdoses may require more than one shot of naloxone. They say that it is possible to overdose after the first shot of naloxone wears off.
What can Officials/Consumers do?
It is important that buyers in unregulated markets do their best to stay safe when purchasing substances including cannabis.
For one’s own protection Fentanyl Test Strips are inexpensive ($1 each), simple to use, and can save lives. The National Harm Reduction Coalition says that they are an effective way to test injectable drugs, powders, and pills.
One might also test cannabis with these strips. Health Affairs, a health and policy journal, explains that “the single-use strips work like other over-the-counter testing products: The user dips the strip into water containing a small amount of well-mixed drug residue and waits a few minutes for the result.”
While individuals can take the above measures, states might also consider harm reduction efforts by instituting legal, regulated markets. In states that have already welcomed adult-use cannabis, operators must test their products for contaminants, and oftentimes, make the test results publicly available.