Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar advised a group of young people on Thursday not to let their guard down about the dangers of marijuana, because potentially lethal synthetic opioids could be lurking in their weed.
The claim came during a White House event with millennial leaders in which a questioner asked Azar what the administration was doing to send the message to youth that prescription drugs are “just as dangerous” as marijuana, which the government has been portraying for generations as “the big gateway drug.”
After advising attendees to keep a close eye on their prescriptions and properly dispose of unused pills, Azar picked back up on the questioner’s reference to marijuana, claiming that the herb also plays a role in the opioid epidemic, perhaps unbeknownst to users.
“These are very sophisticated operators, and they are lacing other illegal drugs with fentanyl to get you hooked on opioids and bring you into their system,” said Azar. “Marijuana laced with fentanyl, all kinds of other products laced with fentanyl.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is typically around 50 times more potent than heroin. It began as a prescription-only medication, but illegal manufacturing of fentanyl in recent years has made it an increasingly popular street drug, often to deadly effect. Fentanyl and other similar analogs were associated with more than 20,000 overdose deaths in 2016, according to some counts.
So, as Azar noted, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about fentanyl. But there’s little in the way of reliable evidence to suggest that dealers are lacing marijuana with potent opioids in order to get people addicted, as Azar claims.
There have, however, been reports of other street drugs ― and particularly other opioids ― being laced with fentanyl, and plenty of instances of dealers selling fentanyl under other names. The example Azar used on Thursday involved someone who’d taken a street version of an antidepressant and fatally overdosed, allegedly because it contained fentanyl.
Lacing and the general lack of quality control on the black market have indeed fueled overdose problems. After all, buyers of illicit drugs have no way of knowing what they’re actually getting, and, in many cases, dealers may not even know what they’re actually selling.
That’s one reason many people argue for legalizing and regulating drugs, including marijuana. People who buy marijuana from dispensaries in legal-weed states can generally trust the product wouldn’t be tainted with fentanyl.
It’s also why many drug policy experts support the creation of supervised injection facilities, which could give users a way to check their drugs for impurities or adulteration, as well as provide them with a safe space to use and access to resources to get into recovery.
Although Fentanyl is a legitimate problem, Azar’s claim of fentanyl-laced marijuana appears to be little more than a bogeyman. And like any good bogeyman, there have been questionable sightings and stories passed around by word of mouth.
A number of anecdotal reports about weed adulterated with fentanyl popped up in 2017. They were later found to have involved individuals who’d ingested both marijuana and other drugs, including opioids, but had initially reported that they’d only been using marijuana, as Snopes has documented. When the additional details came to light, local news outlets corrected their reporting.
Other officials have made claims about marijuana laced with fentanyl only to walk them back later. Most stories about this supposed drug trend have been based exclusively on self-reporting and thinly sourced claims by law enforcement without any confirmation. In other words, there have been no reported cases in which anyone has actually tested marijuana and determined conclusively that it contains fentanyl. At least so far.
Following a June 2017 scare over marijuana supposedly laced with fentanyl in Ohio, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration told the Cincinnati Enquirer that, although it “could be” a problem, he was “not familiar” with it happening.
Asked Thursday if the situation had changed since last year, the DEA did not immediately provide an update. The Department of Health and Human Services similarly did not respond to a request for comment on Azar’s remarks or to provide examples of cases in which marijuana has been shown to have been laced with fentanyl.