The history of cannabis is in many ways a history of the psychology of fear. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 weaponized white people's fear of immigrants from the southern border and Black men to outlaw cannabis. This came on the heels of the notorious 1936 "documentary" film "Reefer Madness," which gained infamy for its fictional portrayal of violent, highly sexualized cannabis addicts perpetrating horrific crimes.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970, as Richard Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman famously admitted, was in no small part motivated by the desire to "disrupt" Black communities and the anti-war movement by criminalizing weed (the drug of choice among "hippies") and heroin addiction, which was ravaging Black communities at the time. Disenfranchising Black people through criminalization of addiction continues to suppress the Black vote today, as most states still restrict voting rights for those with felony convictions.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and it would seem that fear is losing out, finally, to common sense. Marijuana is legal in some form or another in a majority of U.S. states.
With every cultural shift toward common-sense drug laws. However, there is usually a swift and severe backlash from industries that profit from fear. Nationwide, law enforcement in numerous communities has pushed the idea that fentanyl—a strong, deadly opiate responsible for thousands of overdoses and deaths annually—is being mixed with cannabis and then sold to unsuspecting users. In April, Marysville, Kansas, police posted to Facebook (where else?) to warn of fentanyl present in samples from a marijuana bust. Police in Pocatello, Idaho on April 14 reported that a "trend" is developing with fentanyl in marijuana, allegedly causing overdoses, but no deaths.
In the latter instance, Pocatello Police detectives told the "Idaho State Journal" that the marijuana they seized tested "presumptive positive" for fentanyl. At no point in the story does the author explain the modifier "presumptive," and whether that is a law enforcement term of art.
In Mississippi, where tougher laws are being enacted to combat opioid overdoses, Col. Steven Maxwell of the state's Bureau of Narcotics trumpeted his agency's effort to educate high school students about the dangers of fentanyl. He could not resist lumping marijuana in the lecture.
"When we talk to high school students about this we are trying to impress upon them it's no longer just marijuana but could be marijuana laced with fentanyl or some other synthetic drug," Maxwell told Jackson's "Clarion Ledger" in April. The story provided zero examples of police seizing marijuana laced with fentanyl.
This conflation of the dangers of opioids, methamphetamine and other drugs with marijuana is hardly new. Marijuana is a Schedule I drug, classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration for the past 50 years as having no medical benefit, and a high potential for abuse, on par with heroin and meth. This is despite all available scientific evidence contradicting such a claim.
Even if marijuana has a potential for being combined with other, more dangerous substances, a regulated cannabis market would seem to be the answer to consumers' concerns. Cannabis flower, vaporizers and edibles are tested for foreign substances in a regulated market. In the unlikely event that a deadly substance is sold with a cannabis product, there is a regulated industry that is held to account. Not so in wild-west, unregulated markets like Kansas, Idaho or other prohibition states.
When I asked the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office if opioids have found their way into marijuana samples, they could report zero such instances. The Bend Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the same question. In Jackson County, fentanyl itself has been a major concern, according to Public Information Officer Aaron Lewis, of the Jackson County Sheriff's Office. Whether it is being combined with cannabis is another story.
"I haven't seen marijuana laced with fentanyl," Lewis said. "I would imagine that would hit my radar if it happened in the last year or so." Lewis cited a fentanyl-laced Xanax death, and a problem with counterfeit opioid pills.
When it comes to fentanyl, a degree of fear is justified. According to the DEA, fentanyl is 80 to 100 times more deadly than morphine, and overdose deaths have skyrocketed over the past several years. Anyone seeking drugs from an unregulated source should worry that what they are getting could be mis-advertised.
Conflating cannabis dangers with fentanyl dangers, however, is weaponizing fear for an agenda. Not only is there scant evidence of fentanyl-laced marijuana on the streets, there are studies revealing the usefulness of treating opioid addiction with cannabis. If fentanyl is a problem in the cannabis trade in any state, then a regulated cannabis market is the undeniable solution.