Fentanyl In Cocaine Could Be Unintended

By Kelly Burch 10/19/18

One harm reduction expert thinks cross-contamination may be to blame for cocaine "laced" with fentanyl.

close-up of hands exchanging money for a drug deal

More often, fentanyl is being found in cocaine, increasing the risk of opioid overdose and leaving officials scrambling to figure out why the drugs are being mixed, and if dealers actually intend to combine them.

“It’s something we have to be very concerned about,” Dan Ciccarone, a public health researcher, told Rolling Stone. “[We have] to keep following the data.”

Fentanyl is dangerous enough in the heroin and opioid supplies. However, it is especially deadly for users of cocaine, many of whom do not know what they are ingesting. Because these people are not regular opioid users they have not built up a tolerance to the drug and are therefore more susceptible to overdose.

“Part of the challenge is just how potent fentanyl is that even a small amount, particularly in someone who doesn’t regularly use opioids, can be so deadly,” said Dr. Sarah Wakeman, an addiction medicine physician. “More and more, we’re hearing stories of people who either have only used cocaine and are not a person who uses opioids, or who says ‘I bought what I thought was cocaine,’ and they suffer an overdose and it turns out to be fentanyl.”

To make matters worse, most dealers don’t even realize that their product contains fentanyl. “The street dealers are just as clueless as the users are at this point,” Ciccarone said.

In order to address the issue, experts are trying to figure out how and why fentanyl is making its way into the cocaine supply. 

“Lots of experts are being asked this question and making guesses, but they are all guesses,” said Keith Humphreys, a Stanford professor and drug policy expert. “It’s quite possible that this is happening way up stream over the head of dealers, and it’s something higher up in the supply chain that isn’t very well understood.”

Although putting fentanyl in cocaine might seem malicious, experts say that likely isn’t the intent. 

“Nobody wants to kill off their customer,” said Tino Fuentes, a harm reduction and overdose reversal specialist. Some people have hypothesized that dealers are trying to get customers hooked on opioids, which are more addictive than cocaine, but Fuentes said this is unlikely.

“Nobody’s trying to put fentanyl in their shit to get their coke customers [to switch] over to heroin when their business is coke,” he said.

Fuentes says that cross-contamination may be to blame. 

“They’re not cleaning the scales. They’re not cleaning the grinders. They’re not cleaning the strainers,” he said. “So whatever’s left there is going to be picked up in the first batch of coke.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.