A few months ago, a friend of mine was killed by government policy.
This may seem an extreme claim, but my friend was attending a house party, like those which happen all the time. Someone offered him cannabis, and he accepted. Laced with fentanyl, it killed him.
Fentanyl is a dangerous opioid and the main driver in a crisis of fatalities, but my friend was not a user of prescription pharmaceuticals such as oxycodone or street drugs such as heroin. He was just a person with no known addictions or history of substance abuse, socially using cannabis at a party.
It’s a mystery why anyone would lace cannabis with fentanyl. Since July 2021, Connecticut “received reports of overdose patients who have exhibited opioid overdose symptoms and required naloxone for revival. These patients denied any opioid use and claimed to have only smoked marijuana.” In November, Connecticut was able to obtain a sample of the cannabis used and confirmed the presence of fentanyl in laboratory tests. The party my friend attended was in Rhode Island, but the RI State Health Laboratory said that, as of March 28, they “have not identified any fentanyl laced marijuana in Rhode Island to date.” Yet it happened, and my friend is dead.
As recently as March 25, the Congressional Research Service issued an analysis explaining the status of cannabis under US federal law: “Schedule I substances are considered to have a ‘high potential for abuse’ with ‘no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.’ The [Controlled Substances Act] prohibits the manufacture, distribution, dispensation, and possession of Schedule I substances except for federal government-approved research studies.” Science has learned a lot In the half-century since Congress put cannabis on the Schedule I list in 1970, but only Congress can fix this and there has been no political will to do so.
Almost seven years ago, I wrote (“Opinion: Will Rhode Island Surrender Yet Another Industry?”, by Michael Bilow, Jun 4, 2015), “Recreational use of marijuana, though illegal, is mainstream.” I cited the most recent data available as of 2011-2012 from the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health conducted by the federal government, reporting that in RI among 18-25 year-olds 30.16% had used cannabis and 40.49% had used tobacco within the past month. Looking at the most recent 2019-2020 data – samhsa.gov/data/report/2019-2020-nsduh-state-specific-tables (Table 90A) – the percentage in RI among 18-25 year-olds within the past month has increased to 36.26% for cannabis use and decreased to 22.14% for tobacco use; the national averages (Table 2A) are now 23.02% for cannabis use and 21.77% for tobacco use. As I wrote in 2015, “It is now beyond serious dispute that the ‘war on drugs,’ insofar as it targets marijuana, has been lost. No matter what anyone asserts about the negative effects on health or otherwise, in a democratic society making criminals of a third of the young adult population is an abuse of the police power of the state…”
This country experimented with alcohol prohibition from 1920 to 1933 with consequences now universally recognized as disastrous. Not only was prohibition widely flouted, directly causing a boom in organized crime to supply the strong demand on the black market, but quality control was impossible as illegal makers used harmful ingredients and unsanitary equipment to satisfy the market. In an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 people, permanent nerve damage was caused. It became so common that “jake leg” disease, the partial or complete loss of use of hands and feet caused by toxins in Jamaican ginger, was the subject of dozens of blues songs and an instantly recognizable cultural phenomenon in the early 1930s.
Today, any eligible adult can buy alcoholic beverages from a reputable liquor store, from a reputable maker, meeting standards of quality and purity that are enforced by government regulation and inspection. Alcohol still certainly causes social problems, but no one has been poisoned by anything like “jake leg” disease in almost a century, and that epidemic and its tens of thousands of victims have been completely forgotten except by blues music historians.
Tobacco is enormously harmful but, as noted above, between 2012 and 2020 use among those between 18 and 25 decreased by half for a completely legal product. Does anyone seriously believe that prohibition would have helped?
The reason my friend who was killed by unknowingly and unintentionally ingesting fentanyl could not get quality-controlled cannabis was because there are still draconian government policies preventing it. Although more and more states have legalized recreational use of cannabis, the growers and sellers are banned by federal regulation from using the banking system, forced to operate like the organized crime syndicates of alcohol prohibition despite their desire to become legitimate businesses. Further, as states see cannabis as a cash cow target for disproportionate and excessive taxes, they encourage the survival of the established black market. As Pat Oglesby, former chief tax counsel to the US Senate Finance Committee said in a forum at Brown University that I covered in 2014, cannabis is an ordinary agricultural product, “kind of like oregano,” whose price results from artificial scarcity attributed solely to its illegality.
RI may finally this year legalize recreational use of cannabis, creating a white market for growers and sellers. While this is a step forward, progress is hardly guaranteed. The federal legal restrictions will remain for the foreseeable future. If the state imposes taxes that are too high instead of reasonable taxes comparable to alcohol, customers will be encouraged to stick with the black market. If licenses for sellers are plagued by cronyism, not exactly unprecedented in RI, that will also harm fair operation of the market, possibly even giving sellers monopoly power that disadvantages growers and buyers. The devil is in the details.
My friend was someone I knew primarily from literary circles, and I would often see him at plays and readings, especially in the gothic horror community. While it often directly addresses the subject of death, “The gothic is an entertainment, walking on a tightrope over a dark view of life. I call this ‘the smile behind the skull,’” as poet Brett Rutherford said years ago. Real death – especially sudden, unexpected, and senseless – is simply a tragedy.
No matter how federal and state law changes, my friend is still dead. Unless cannabis is allowed to become a legitimate business as reputable and responsible as the trade in alcohol, a lot of unfortunate recreational cannabis users may join him. He doesn’t need the company.
Motif is committed to community harm reduction efforts and will host a table distributing, for free, naloxone (Narcan) overdose first-aid treatment and test kits that can detect fentanyl at our 2022 Tattoo Awards Ceremony beginning 6pm on April 12 at the Narragansett Brewery, 271 Tockwotton St, PVD. These materials will be provided by the Hope Recovery CORE (Community Outreach Response Efforts) Team, part of the Parent’s Support Network of RI – psnri.org/our-services/peer-recovery-outreach.html – funded by the Rhode Island Department of Health. The CORE Team also provides support and referrals to inpatient treatment, medication assisted treatment, recovery housing, self-help-based support, Peer Recovery Support, HIV/HCV testing, and basic needs assistance.