It is a rare thing to be able to say you witnessed the birth of a legend, let alone an urban legend, but that is what we are witnessing with ‘fentanyl-laced cannabis’. Like evolution itself, there are dead-ends; there is also re-emergence.
One possible birth-place of this myth is CTV news in Calgary Alberta. In November 2014, they published a simple story about traffic stops leading to seizures of cannabis and fentanyl. The story itself clarifies that it was two separate stops; one which yielded cannabis, and the other fentanyl. The headline however read: Marijuana and Fentanyl Seized.
It was perhaps this that led the Vancouver Police Department to issue a statement in March of 2015 which claimed “Fentanyl-laced marijuana, heroin, oxycodone and other party drugs, have resulted in the deaths of many occasional drug users.” Not only is cannabis included, it’s listed first. In fact, Constable Sandra Glendinning ‘insisted police are seeing fentanyl in marijuana,’ at a news conference the very next day, promoting a new campaign called, ironically, ‘knowyoursource.ca’. The story was reported in numerous outlets.
By June 2015, the fentanyl crisis (which Macleans traces back to 2002 in Canada) was finally getting some attention, but so was Constable Glendinning’s.
In August, Dr Mark Lysyshyn, a Health Officer with Vancouver Coastal Health, seems to be the first official to state publicly that fentanyl has not been found in cannabis. This didn’t stop others from quoting the original story over the next year, including a North Dakota police force in July and a sitting BC Premier in November.
BC Premier Christy Clark was no stranger to election drama, from losing her own riding and pulling off a come-from-behind victory for her incumbent party last time, to effectively splitting the vote to win reelection and still not getting to form government. One early sign that things weren’t going to go smoothly can be seen in November of 2016. At a press conference in Ottawa, Premier Clark repeated the claim—not from the earlier VPD release that fentanyl had been found in cannabis, but one put out by the Masset RCMP the week before.
The next day, the Ministry of Health, Vancouver Coastal Health, the BC Coroners Service, the Provincial RCMP Headquarters, and the Vancouver Police all stated that they had no evidence to support the claim. Even the Masset RCMP clarified, saying that their source was ‘community concerns’. Still, in February of this year, Valemount RCMP Officer Chris Gallant again hinted they had reason to believe cannabis could be laced with fentanyl.
This pattern emerged again this week in Ohio. In June, Hamilton County Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco and US Senator Rob Portman again made the claim. Quick reporting uncovered that neither Hamilton County or neighbouring Cuyahoga County medical examiners had reported any such cases. Local police officers stated on record they had no evidence of any such cases. As for the DEA, they also said there was no evidence, but ‘there could be.’
In June 2017, the myth raised its head again in Canada, with a paper in Cornwall Ontario running a story that implied Cannabis was laced with fentanyl, though it noted this was unconfirmed by police.
Just this month, Dr Chris Mackie, the regional health officer for the London Ontario Health Unit somehow inferred that finding cannabis in the blood samples of heroin users meant the cannabis was tainted. This of course led to warnings by police and two other health agencies.
We seem to have a giant blind spot when it comes to both fentanyl and cannabis. While ‘there could be’, and ‘if there is even a shadow of a doubt’, or if even one person said ‘it was the case’ appear to be perfectly acceptable reasons to perpetuate untruths regarding the dangers of Cannabis, the same statements made by patients who find relief in it are not regarded with the same intensity.
And while we insist on treating cannabis like an opiate, and our Physician Colleges recommend those with addiction issues not be prescribed cannabis, Fentanyl has likely already claimed a thousand lives this year in Canada alone.
Featured image by Miran Rijavec.