At the end of last year, a handful of reports emerged warning that drug dealers were lacing weed with the powerful synthetic opioid, fentanyl. Respective authorities in Vermont and Connecticut alleged that two people suffered from apparent opioid overdoses, having unknowingly ingested the substance while smoking what they thought was weed. After arresting three people suspected of dealing, officials in Vermont later confirmed that no fentanyl was found in the seized marijuana. In Connecticut, however, authorities say there are 40 official cases of contaminated cannabis.
The accusations have been met with skepticism from drug experts and users, some of whom have brushed the claims off as “sexy, attention-grabbing” headlines that scaremonger instead of dealing with the real opioid crisis. Others have condemned it as a myth spread by the police and other anti-drug advocates. Some people, however, have expressed panic at the possibility that weed — historically one of the safest substances — could be adulterated with something deadly. “That would mean you could smoke half an O and be just fine till you get to that ONE NUG!” wrote the aptly named redditor Sketchyfart on a r/trees thread. “That’s honestly terrifying.”
Another redditor took to the platform to share their anxiety about the phenomenon. “Fentanyl in weed?” they wrote. “Paranoid about laced shit with the [uptick] in fentanyl overdoses… I prob sound mad dumb, but better safe than sorry I guess.” Someone called froggythefrankman replied: “Shit’s got me freaked out too, but I don’t know how much of this is [bullshit].”
Actually, a fair amount of it might be. One rumor linked to the supposed rise in fentanyl-laced cannabis is that dealers are doing it to increase dependency among their customers — something that the Ontario Harm Reduction Network (via WebMD) says wouldn’t make sense. For one, fentanyl has a high profit margin, so lacing weed (which has a low profit margin) with it wouldn’t be financially viable. It also has high potential for a fatal overdose — therefore it might be more likely to kill buyers than make them addicted.
“There are good reasons to think that many of the stories about fentanyl-laced weed have been untrue,” says Adam Waugh, the core team lead at harm-reduction charity PsyCare UK. “Drug suppliers aren’t trying to harm their customers, so it isn’t clear why someone would intentionally lace weed with fentanyl. It may be that some labs have picked up trace amounts of fentanyl on cannabis, which have been due to accidental cross-contamination.”
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t anecdotal stories about people accidentally taking fentanyl. Twenty-five year-old Madi says her boyfriend Will, also 25, has accidentally overdosed twice on drugs he didn’t know were laced with the opioid. The first time was in October 2020, during a period when the pair were smoking weed daily. One day, Will went to meet his usual dealer at a gas station in their hometown of Memphis. A few seconds after taking a couple of drags of the dealer’s blunt — which Madi’s now certain was laced with the opioid since the dealer reportedly smokes it regularly — Will dropped to the ground. Luckily, she says, someone who went to school with him saw Will fall, “picked him up, put him in the car and took him to the hospital,” where doctors confirmed Madi’s suspicions: Will had taken fentanyl.
Then, just a few months later, the couple each took a morphine pill — Madi says she swallowed hers, but Will snorted his. “Within a few seconds, he lay back on his bed and started making these horrible noises, before turning blue,” she recalls. “[When 911 arrived], they had to resuscitate him. They used two doses of Narcan [which reverses the effects of opioids], which didn’t work until they used the [defibrillator] paddles.” After this, Will checked into rehab, and the pair have since been clean and sober for over a year.
In the first scenario, it could be that the dealer was indeed smoking fentanyl himself, and neglected to tell Will when he had a couple of drags. Although Will lives in Memphis, a September study conducted in San Francisco did find a rise in non-injected fentanyl use, with more people smoking it due to social stigma (e.g., to avoid visible injection track marks). In the second instance, it’s less clear how Will would have ingested the fentanyl — though the Drug Enforcement Administration has reported that it’s being pressed into pills to make them look like legitimate prescription opioids.
So, how might you tell if you’ve accidentally smoked fentanyl? “It has effects similar to commonly prescribed drugs like morphine,” says Waugh. “The effect someone would feel would depend on the dose they took — at smaller doses, they might feel euphoric, sleepy or nauseous, but at larger doses, they could lose consciousness.” As a preventative measure — when you’re taking any drugs — Waugh recommends that you always have someone with you. If you’re worried that you have smoked fentanyl by mistake, Waugh says you should immediately seek medical help.
The U.S. is in the midst of a worsening opioid crisis — which is killing 100,000 people a year — but the accusation that dealers are purposefully lacing weed with fentanyl is probably fake news. Still, that doesn’t mean that drugs can’t be cross-contaminated with other drugs — it’s always worth testing your drugs for adulterants — nor that fentanyl doesn’t pose a huge risk to those who take it. Nevertheless, descending into panic isn’t the answer, and there’s an overwhelming chance your stash is safe to smoke — just maybe not with your sketchy dealer in Memphis.