Marijuana Users May Unknowingly Be Taking Lethal Fentanyl Doses


Drug Enforcement Administration

A penny next to a lethal dose of fentanyl.

If you thought that marijuana was harmless, think again. According to the CDC, marijuana is not only more potent that it ever was, but it is increasingly being found laced with the deadly opioid, fentanyl. 

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the drug, introduced in the 1960s is used on its own as well as mixed with other substances. 

Scott Sheldon, a certified peer recovery specialist for the Howard County Health Department says that people using marijuana have no way of knowing whether the marijuana they buy is laced, as when people buy it illegally it is unregulated. According to Mr. Sheldon, there have been laced strains of marijuana identified nationwide.

Lacing allows dealers to pay less and earn more. According to Mr. Sheldon, because fentanyl has a high potency, a short length of high, and is cheap to produce, it benefits the dealer to spray small amounts on their marijuana. The user gets more high than expected and remains high for a shorter amount of time, both of which increase sales since “adding fentanyl to marijuana” is cheaper. 

Since adding fentanyl is considerably cheaper than operating a marijuana farm, some dealers will purchase marijuana at a low price and lace it with fentanyl, and market it as stronger, high-quality marijuana, says Mr. Sheldon. This has been common in recent years for substances such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, according to the CDC. 

One of the most dangerous aspects is that a person using laced marijuana will most likely be unaware of what they are taking. Mr. Sheldon, who has worked at a detention center for the past five and a half years, says every admitted person is given a urinalysis, a urine test which is used to detect disorders or drugs.

According to Mr. Sheldon, many of those only consuming marijuana test positive for fentanyl, which shows how widespread its use has become.  

Information from a Howard County Press Release. (Lauren Kelly)

“Some of those people are legitimately taken aback by being informed that they have fentanyl in their system when they have no knowledge of ever ingesting fentanyl,” said Mr. Sheldon. 

Ms. Kirchner, Wilde Lake’s testing coordinator, has seen the dangers of this lethal substance. Five years ago, her 24-year-old son overdosed on heroin that was laced with carfentanil, which is a hundred times stronger than fentanyl, commonly used to tranquilize large animals. Ms. Kirchner sees this as a symptom of the opioid crisis. 

“You’re not a pharmacist, and unless you mixed it or put it in there, you don’t know how much is in there,” said Ms. Kirchner. “You can’t regulate it.” 

But lacing isn’t the only problem that has made using marijuana more dangerous overtime.

When people used marijuana  in the 1970s, it contained less than 2% THC, the ingredient that makes the user feel “high.” Nowadays, according to the Journal of the Missouri Medical Association, marijuana commonly contains 20–25% THC. This has strengthened the high people feel, making it much easier to feel higher while using less.

However, an increased high can be incredibly uncomfortable, and can even leave a person feeling like they are completely immobile.

“When I was a teenager, and into my twenties, even if it was good, I could generally smoke with a couple friends, and we would take a few hits, like three to five, and be pretty high for a few hours,” said Mr. Sheldon, who was involved in the buying and reselling of marijuana for over 20 years. 

“Now, you can take one or two hits and be almost incapacitated for an hour or two,” said Mr. Sheldon. He says that some users associated feeling “stuck” or “couch-lock” — feeling unable to move — with higher potency strains. 

“Here’s the deal; there’s always going to be the kid who just wants to know what it’s all about,” said Ms. Kirchner. “You have the kid who’s not gonna try it. Then you’re going to have the kid who wants to see what it’s all about.”

As long as lacing remains profitable, it is safest to assume that any illegally obtained marijuana is laced. Without fentanyl test strips and having and knowing how to use Narcan — a nasal spray used to block opiates from going to the brain — people are in danger of overdosing.