On Aug. 30, the Drug Enforcement Administration warned America’s parents about the “emerging trend” of colored fentanyl pills. According to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram, the color of the pills is a, “deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults.” But is it?
At a press conference held soon after, Democratic Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer displayed a picture of an illicit fentanyl pill and a piece of candy and said, “This is fentanyl, this is a Sweet Tart. You tell me the difference,” and added, “Halloween is coming…this is really worrisome and really dangerous.” But…is it?
Taken together, these statements are terrifying—what could be worse than drug dealers putting fentanyl in our kids’ candy? Thankfully, these fears are mostly bullshit. In the last decade or so, a cloud of misinformation has swirled around fentanyl, with politicians, media, and law enforcement agencies amplifying myths and half-truths related to the drug—and “dealers are eager to entice children into taking fent” is just the most recent.
The truth about fentanyl
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid agonist 100 times more potent than morphine. It was was developed in the early 1960s and mainly prescribed as pain medication for cancer patients. Illicit use of the substance didn’t really take off until the 2000s. Between 2005 and 2007, the DEA identified over 1,000 deaths associated with illegally manufactured fentanyl, and the number of overdoses has steadily ticked upwards since—in 2016, the DEA attributed around 20,000 U.S. deaths to synthetic opioids. By all accounts, it is a dangerous, highly addictive, often deadly drug, that should only be used under medical supervision.
Why are there so many myths about fentanyl?
From stoking hysteria about reefer fiends in the 1940s to warnings of the coming epidemic of “crack-babies” in the 1980s, forces within the United States have long used misinformation about drugs to advance various political and social agendas.
John Ehrlichman, Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief, spelled out the game in an interview with Harper’s back in the 1990s. According to Ehrlichman, the Nixon administration used drug policy to strike at its political enemies. “By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
I guess both Schumer and the DEA could be making honest mistakes about fentanyl, but on the other hand: it’s election season, the DEA wants funds for border control, and the democratic party want funds for efforts to fight the opioid epidemic, so you can do the math.
With that said, let’s unpack some common fentanyl myths.
Myth #1: Dealers are coloring fentanyl to attract children
Colored fentanyl tablets have been seized by law enforcement, but the DEA’s description of this as a “deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults” isn’t even logical. Children don’t have any money, so why would drug dealers want to get them hooked on anything? Why would dealers risk the legal consequences of dealing a deadly drug to children Linking fentanyl with Halloween candy is just as silly—they’re called drug dealers, not drug giver-awayers. Advising drug users to keep their drugs away from children would have been more honest and useful.
The real reason illicit drug manufacturers are dyeing their product with bright colors, according to Memphis based harm reduction program A Betor Way? Dealers have been coloring fentanyl for years as a marketing tactic or a way of informing users of pill-potency. “Different colors would be different strengths,” ex-user Brad Yackey explained. “You’d try to get the good stuff, or the most potent you could get.”
According to some harm reduction experts, the colors are actually a good thing. “Fake pills that are clearly fake are helpful for them to know that what they’re getting is not the OxyCodone they’re used to, but something more potent,” Dr. Nabarun Dasgupta, a harm reduction-based researcher at the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Filter.
Myth #2: You can overdose on fentanyl by touching or inhaling it
One of the most common dubious assertions about fentanyl is that you can overdose on it just by touching it or breathing it in. Despite many anecdotal reports from law enforcement officers, ”the risk of clinically significant exposure to emergency responders is extremely low,” says a joint statement from The American College of Medical Toxicology and American Academy of Clinical Toxicology.
“Fentanyl isn’t absorbed [through tough],” clinical toxicologist Joshua Radke told Emergency Medical News. “That’s why pharmaceutical companies had to spend years and millions of dollars developing a special patch to get fentanyl into the body through skin.”
Getting high or overdosing through breathing in fentanyl is equally unlikely, Radke said. “Fentanyl has a low vapor pressure, which means it would be hard to have very much of it floating around in the air. Even if it were, you’d have to breathe it in for a really long time, like hours, to get a meaningful amount into your bloodstream, “ he said.
The reports of overdoses from law enforcement could actually be attributed to hysteria around fentanyl: Some psychologists speculate that instances of first responders’ touching fent and seeming to hyperventilate or collapse could be due to a kind of mass psychogenic illness, or simple panic attacks. Real overdose victims slowly stop breathing until they die—they don’t freak out.
Myth #3: Drug dealers are lacing marijuana with fentanyl
It’s well-established that drug dealers often mix fentanyl with other drugs, or pass it off as Xanax, cocaine, oxycodone. But so far, there are no verified reports of fent turning up in weed. It doesn’t pass a basic logic test either: Unlike cocaine or Oxy, marijuana is relatively inexpensive and plentiful. A dealer lacing pot with fentanyl would be making their product more costly, increasing their potential legal consequences for dealing it, and risking killing their customers. None of this dissuades politicians from warning us about it though.
Myth #4: Fentanyl is so potent it doesn’t respond to overdose-prevention drug naloxone.
One of the more hysterical rumors around fentanyl is that the drug does not respond to naloxone, a medication that can reverse an overdose from opioids. This isn’t so, although the potency of fentanyl may require responders to use more naloxone than they’d need for an overdose of heroin or another opiate.
Myth #5: The DEA’s street names for fentanyl (undetermined)
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, fentanyl street names include Apache, China Girl, China Town, China White, Dance Fever, Goodfellas, Great Bear, He-Man, Poison, and Tango & Cash. I have no idea how many of these terms are actually in use, but “fetty” is absent, and I imagine that’s way more common than “Tango & Cash.” For context, the DEA also says people call marijuana “grass,” a moniker that was last used by George Carlin in 1983, and “Pink Panther,” which doesn’t even make sense.
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