The Austin Chronic: Should I Throw Away My Marijuana in Fear of Fentanyl?

APD reassures there’s no evidence that contaminated marijuana is “prevalent in our community”

Keen observers of drug-related current events have heard this one before, so much that “fentanyl-laced marijuana” might evoke a similar eye-roll as “apples with razor blades inside” (by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images)

The most common message I’ve received over the last 10 days has been: “Should I be worried about there being fentanyl in weed?”

This follows a May 2 arrest report and a subsequent press conference from the Austin Police Department alleging a sample of marijuana, confiscated from a man who sold two $20 crack rocks to undercover cops outside a pawn shop on North Lamar, tested positive for fentanyl.

Soon headlines and news ledes transmitted six terrifying words: “fentanyl-laced marijuana found in Austin.” Surely someone who had just smoked a bowl scrolled upon that headline and spent the next 20 minutes checking their pulse, muttering “nothing is safe anymore.” However, keen observers of drug-related current events have heard this one before, so much that “fentanyl-laced marijuana” might evoke a similar eye-roll as “apples with razor blades inside.”

A public information officer for APD confirmed to The Austin Chronic on Monday that both the seized crack cocaine and suspected marijuana “tested positive for traces of fentanyl during presumptive field tests” and that definitive lab tests on the substances had not yet been conducted.

Those aforementioned field test kits – which can involve residue-reading pouches, swabs, and vials of liquid that officers match to a color chart – are largely inadmissible in court and have been notorious for misidentifying everyday substances like donut glaze and acne medicine as illicit drugs. Thus, they are used for preliminary identification and probable cause, not evidence like lab tests.

This is all to say, until an actual forensic chemist has evaluated the sample, no one really knows if marijuana contaminated with fentanyl existed amongst the cannabis supply in Austin this month.

“Currently, there is no evidence to indicate that marijuana potentially contaminated with fentanyl is prevalent in our community,” APD’s media representative tells The Austin Chronic, although APD Lt. Patrick Eastlick did say in a May 7 press conference that his unit had seen marijuana with fentanyl previously. “As previously stated by the department, the common denominator in the recent spate of overdoses in the city was the suspected use of crack cocaine containing fentanyl.”

Given that harrowing week in Austin where emergency services were overwhelmed with widespread overdoses and nine deaths suspected to be related to fentanyl, it made sense for every black-market substance to be under suspicion – even if it hurts my brain to try to think of a plausible economic angle for lacing weed with the synthetic opiate. It’s not like you’re cutting a $200 tiny bag of cocaine with cheap filler; marijuana is bulky and inexpensive. What would even be the point?

If fent-ijuana had ever existed in Austin, I suppose it’d be most likely that someone accidentally contaminated weed with the opiate. Maybe the alleged dealer they arrested uses fentanyl like I use garlic powder in my cooking – sloppily and indiscriminately – and he separated an ounce of weed into eighths on a table covered with residue.

But over the last decade, I’ve routinely seen alarming news stories about fentanyl-laced marijuana, often originating from law enforcement and repeated by politicians, that are followed by scientists or medical professionals making the claim that fentanyl is destroyed at a temperature less than half of a lighter’s flame.

Last October, New York’s Office of Cannabis Management issued a report titled “Cannabis and Fentanyl: Facts and Unknowns” that concluded: “At this time, there have been zero verified incidents of fentanyl 'contamination’ in cannabis.” Its key findings included that fentanyl test strips can’t accurately test marijuana because they’re designed for water-soluble substances and that negative stigmas about opiates lead users to provide misinformation, like “I’ve only used marijuana,” to doctors and law enforcement.

Therefore I’d recommend waiting for actual lab confirmation before shoving your cannabis stash into the garbage disposal. Unless, of course, you specifically buy weed from strangers outside pawn shops who also sell crack, then – yes – toss it and get cannabis from any number of people or services who will talk your ear off about the organic nutrients used to grow it.

In Other News, Lubbock’s Still Uptight

On May 4, voters in Texas’ 10th-largest city rejected a ballot measure that would’ve reduced enforcement on low-level marijuana offenses (up to 4 ounces), with 65% voting against it. It was the first community vote on decriminalization since January, when Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed lawsuits against five cities, including Austin, for relaxing policing and prosecution on weed.

Cannabis legalization advocates in Texas were hoping voters would demonstrate that even conservative strongholds are in favor of decriminalizing marijuana use. After all, a February 2023 report on public attitudes toward marijuana by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs showed that 81% of Texas favored personal possession being treated like a traffic ticket. Lubbock’s state Rep. Dustin Burrows preempted the vote by asking supporters to send a message that the plains city “is still a conservative beacon of hope in a country that is losing touch with morality and the rule of law.” Meanwhile, Gov. Greg Abbott continued to harp on the message that cities and counties don’t have the right to override state law. Texas’ state law, by the way, disallows citizen-initiated ballot measures, so Texans will never be able to directly vote on cannabis legalization – despite polls showing that the majority of Texans favor legalization.

It’s Great When the Government Admits They Were Wrong... Even After 54 Years

The Drug Enforcement Administration has now agreed to move marijuana from its highly restrictive Schedule I classification, which tagged it as having “no medical benefit and a high potential for abuse,” to Schedule III, a category that includes ketamine and anabolic steroids. This is the first time the federal government is recognizing the medical benefits of the plant, which was actually in physician reference books from the mid-1800s until 1940. The move, not likely to be rubber-stamped until the end of the year, opens the door for federal research that could give us clarity on the benefits and harms of marijuana use. Previously, federal-led research had to rely heavily on surveys, instead of doctors observing real patients using real cannabis.

The reclassification also gives cannabusinesses access to common tax deductions that weren’t possible under the Schedule I status – though financial experts still expect that banks won’t work with dispensaries out of fear of legal issues. The rescheduling, which then-Pres. Barack Obama considered but didn’t accomplish, successfully portrays the Biden administration as effective marijuana reformers – especially since the rescheduling came just weeks after an anonymously sourced Wall Street Journal report which made it seem like the White House all but demanded timely approval by the DEA, whose leadership was allegedly concerned that modern strains are too potent.

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