Why 39 Connecticut overdoses were believed to be linked to fentanyl-laced marijuana

A fear of getting into trouble or not knowing exactly what drugs they ingested may have led dozens of people to report that they had only smoked pot before overdosing last year, sparking concerns of marijuana potentially laced with fentanyl, an investigator said this week.

But it remains uncertain exactly why the overdose victims originally misled authorities.

“We just don’t know,” said Robert Lawlor, the drug intelligence officer for the Connecticut Overdose Response Strategy team. “It’s not as clear cut as I think people want to make it seem.”

The reports occurred soon after Connecticut legalized recreational marijuana in July 2021. Up until late October, state agencies received 39 reports of patients, who claimed to have only smoked marijuana at the time, suffering from opioid overdoses. These patients required naloxone to be revived, state officials said.

Several of these cases occurred in October in Plymouth, the state Department of Public Health said. Police obtained a sample and found Delta-9 and fentanyl in the marijuana. At the time, it was considered the first confirmed case of fentanyl-laced marijuana in the United States, officials said.

This prompted a warning in November from DPH about fentanyl-laced marijuana.

“It wasn’t to cause panic,” Lawlor said. “It’s about trying to get factual information out there to save lives.”

“The objective is to inform people who use drugs so that they can protect themselves,” he continued. “And hopefully keep themselves alive until they decide to get, or have the opportunity to get, treatment and get on the road to sobriety and get the help that they need.”

Lawlor said police later interviewed the buyer and seller of the confirmed sample from Plymouth. Officials determined the marijuana was accidentally contaminated after the dealer “failed to clean their instruments before processing the marijuana and cross-contaminated it with fentanyl,” DPH spokesperson Chris Boyle said.

The state reviewed all marijuana samples submitted to the state Division of Scientific Services Lab from July to November. No other samples contained fentanyl, Boyle said.

Lawlor said the other 38 overdose cases could have involved the victims misreporting their drug use to emergency medical personnel to possibly avoid getting into trouble with law enforcement.

However, in Lawlor’s experience, people who are suffering from drug overdoses are typically honest with emergency medical personnel.

“They tell EMS what they’re using,” Lawlor said. “They may not know initially whether it’s fentanyl or heroin or a real prescription pill or a fake prescription pill, but they tell EMS in general that they’re taking illicit substances.”

“They’re just not fully aware of the substances they are taking based on the volatility of the illicit drug market at the moment,” he said.

Analysis later also showed that 30 of the 39 overdose patients had histories of opioid use or had previously consumed multiple substances, Lawlor said.

These overdose victims may have also consumed a different drug before smoking marijuana, Lawlor said. That other drug, unknowingly to the patient, may have contained fentanyl, he said.

Fentanyl-laced drugs have become increasingly common over the years, especially in pills and cocaine. Fentanyl was involved in 85 percent of unintentional drug overdose deaths in 2020 through the first week of December 2021, according to DPH.

Cannabis advocates said claims of fentanyl-laced marijuana are often myths that fuel panic around drug use. Although there have been “prominent headlines” in the past, there have also been “few, if any, confirmed cases,” according to Paul Armentano, the deputy director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Lawlor also does not think fentanyl-laced marijuana is a widespread problem, and it was even regarded as an “urban legend” for years.

But he said the drug market in Connecticut is “very unstable and very volatile.”

“Accidental drug contamination can happen,” he added.

Those struggling with substance abuse issues can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration national hotline at 800-662-HELP (4357) for a free and confidential treatment referral or for more information.

The state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services also has a helpline that can link individuals to residential detox and other services. The helpline can be reached at 800-563-4086.

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