By Wesley Gallagher
Drug overdoses continue their alarmingly rapid rise in the US as the opioid crisis continues, with The New York Times reporting that the United States reached nearly 110,000 overdose deaths in 2022. While historically, the epidemic has been fueled by natural opioid painkillers and heroin, the recent rise in deaths has been linked to the increased use of illicit synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which can now be found in common street drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy (MDMA). There’s even growing evidence that fentanyl-laced marijuana is in circulation as well.
What Is Fentanyl?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent. It is approved for medical use as a painkiller, but it is also made illegally and sold as a street drug.
What makes fentanyl most dangerous is not merely its potency, but the fact that it is often disguised as less potent opioids or laced in them clandestinely. Because it is so much stronger than these other drugs, it often leads to overdose. In fact, as of 2017, fentanyl was responsible for 59% of opioid-related deaths.
What Does “Laced” Mean?
When a drug is laced, it means it’s mixed with at least one additional substance, called a “cutting agent.” Often, drugs are laced to manufacture them with a cheaper substance or to bulk up their weight. Both of these strategies are done in hopes of increasing their profitability when sold.
In other situations, drugs may be intentionally laced to affect their potency, enhancing both the high and the perceived quality. Combine this with the appeal of fentanyl’s highly addictive properties to drug dealers, and you have drugs sold that entice customers to keep coming back for more, leading to a fentanyl epidemic as more laced drugs get distributed.
Can Laced Marijuana Contain Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is most often combined with other opioids to create a more intense high, but recently fentanyl-laced marijuana has been showing up on the scene as well. According to NBC News, a 16-year-old high school student in Connecticut was hospitalized after an overdose from suspected marijuana contaminated with fentanyl.
The Connecticut State Department of Public Health issued a warning about the possible dangers of fentanyl-laced marijuana after several reports were received indicating opioid overdose symptoms in patients who claimed to only have smoked pot. In one instance, the marijuana was tested and found to have contained fentanyl.
In the case of fentanyl, an amount the size of a couple grains of sand can be enough to cause an overdose.
Whether it’s intentionally laced with fentanyl or simply cross-contaminated by dealers who also handle fentanyl, there’s always the possibility that marijuana procured illegally will contain such unknown and potentially dangerous substances. In the case of fentanyl, an amount the size of a couple grains of sand can be enough to cause an overdose.
The Dangers and Risks of Smoking Fentanyl-Laced Marijuana
With one of the fentanyl-related dangers in marijuana being an overdose, smoking even small amounts of this laced drug can put you in harm’s way. According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), symptoms of an overdose include:
- Changes in pupillary size
- Cold and clammy skin
- Blue discoloration of the skin
- Respiratory failure leading to death
Without proper testing, the DEA says there’s no way to determine how much fentanyl is contained in a laced drug. So even if someone is aware of fentanyl in marijuana that they’re about to smoke, it’s entirely possible that the dosage could be lethal. Yet if the marijuana isn’t laced with enough of the highly addictive cutting agent to cause an overdose, there are other risks of fentanyl that weed smokers can experience, according to StatPearls:
- Muscle rigidity
- Respiratory depression
- Loss of consciousness
What are the Side Effects of Smoking Marijuana Contaminated with Fentanyl?
As the fentanyl epidemic continues to spread across the US, marijuana users need to be aware of the common side effects associated with smoking fentanyl-laced marijuana. The DEA shares that fentanyl can cause the following when consumed:
- Urinary retention
- Pupillary constriction
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms when using weed, it’s entirely possible that it could be laced with fentanyl. And because it is laced, you’ll also feel the combined effects of both drugs, including marijuana’s common impairment of memory, judgment, and motor skills. Continued use of marijuana contaminated with fentanyl can also lead to long-term addiction.
Other Drugs Commonly Laced with Marijuana
However, it’s important to understand that fentanyl is not the only hard drug that can be laced with marijuana. Numerous stimulants, opioids, and hallucinogens can be added to weed, especially when it’s obtained illegally. Let’s take a look at a few common laced marijuana variations and their harmful effects.
Cocaine is often intentionally mixed with marijuana by users to create a more intense high or to lessen its stimulant effects. In reality, the two can be a dangerous combination, as their side effects can increase and harm the cardiovascular system when combined. Both weed and cocaine affect blood pressure and heart rate, so blending them puts the heart at greater risk.
Even riskier is the possibility that marijuana is laced with cocaine by dealers who don’t disclose this information when they sell it. This can lead to accidental overdose in users who don’t realize they are ingesting a stimulant like cocaine along with marijuana.
Dealers can sometimes combine marijuana with the strong hallucinogenic drug phencyclidine, or PCP, to increase its potency. PCP tends to burn at a slower rate when smoked, which can prolong the experience for the user. When sold on the street, this version of laced marijuana can be called wet weed, fry, super weed, or dusted weed, reports the Regina Leader-Post, and can lead to strong hallucinations, delusions, and even seizures, potentially causing neurological damage.
PCP-laced weed can also cause social dangers for the user, as it’s known to generate aggressive or risky behavior, which can range from panic and rage to violence, accidental injuries, and sadly, death.
Heroin when laced with marijuana can cause a more intense high for a weed smoker, leading to extreme lethargy and relaxation. Yet because of heroin’s highly addictive properties, users can increasingly become physically dependent on the drug as they get more tolerant to its effects.
As a cannabis contaminant, heroin can cause an unpredictable range of effects when combined with marijuana, from hallucinations and anxiety to reduced breathing and heart rates. When taken in large quantities, heroin can even be fatal. Users also have a greater chance of overdosing especially if they don’t use heroin regularly.
How Can You Protect Yourself Against Cannabis Contaminants?
With marijuana legalized in many states, its use is becoming more and more commonplace. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be dangerous, especially if it has been contaminated with other, more potent drugs. And if you’re buying marijuana illegally, there’s no way of knowing for sure how pure it is.
While marijuana is legalized in many parts of the US, it is still a mind-altering substance that can lead to abuse and addiction.
So, what can you do to protect yourself against potential cannabis contaminants if you are not willing to stop using marijuana?
- Purchase marijuana from a legal, reputable vendor in the cannabis industry
- Thoroughly inspect the drug before purchasing
- Test a small amount of the drug before consuming large amounts
- Don’t consume it alone
- Consider purchasing fentanyl test strips, which, according to Popular Science, can detect fentanyl within minutes by mixing a small amount of any drug with water
- Know the signs of overdose, and call 911 if you or anyone you are with begins experiencing symptoms
- Have Narcan (naloxone) on hand in case of overdose
Seeking Treatment for Fentanyl and Marijuana Addiction
While marijuana is legal in more than one-third of US states, it is important to remember that it is still a mind-altering substance that can lead to abuse and addiction. If you or someone you know is struggling with abuse of marijuana or other substances, don’t hesitate to seek the help you need to get well. It’s also common to use these substances in an attempt to self-medicate a co-occurring mental health issue like anxiety or depression.
We at Claudia Black Young Adult Center offer individualized, whole-person treatment for a range of mental health and addiction issues. We would love to help you on your way to lasting recovery. Reach out today to learn more.