Among other roles in the Trump administration, Kellyanne Conway is the White House's opioid crisis czar. But a comment she made last week demonstrates how totally clueless and unqualified for the job she is.
The concern about drugs being adulterated with fentanyl is warranted. But Conway went a step further in her remarks, making a claim that would require only a moment's thought (or some actual familiarity with illicit drugs) for her to realize was not only false but ludicrous.
"People are unwittingly ingesting it," she said of fentanyl. "It's laced into heroin, marijuana, meth, cocaine, and it's also being distributed by itself."
Okay, one of those drugs is not like the others, and that should have been a signal to Conway that she was spouting horse manure. Fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, and meth are all drugs that come in powder form, making it easy to cut one with the other. Marijuana, on the other hand, consists of the flowering buds of a plant. Marijuana buds spotted with powdery white speckles would be obvious (and would probably have consumers wondering if that white stuff was mold).
There is also no evidence of marijuana adulterated with fentanyl despite some urban mythologizing by a handful of law enforcement officials, which was repeated by people who should know better, including Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
When questioned about Conway's fentanyl and marijuana claim, the White House press office pointed to a speech last year by Volkow. "Fentanyl is being used to lace a wide variety of drugs, including marijuana," she claimed.
When questioned about Volkow's claim, the NIDA press office cited "anecdotal reports" from law enforcement. But those "reports" were actually a single report from police in Vancouver, B.C., in 2015 that "fentanyl-laced marijuana" was killing area drug users. And despite the panic over the claim, Vancouver cops admitted a year later that they hadn't actually seen "fentanyl-laced marijuana".
Again in 2017, some Canadian officials claimed there had been fentanyl-laced marijuana deaths. The only problem with that claim is that Canadian coroners reported no such cases.
There are a couple of ways the fentanyl-laced marijuana myth could have come about. The first is that extremely sensitive fentanyl test strips, which detect concentrations as tiny as one-billionth of a gram, could have detected minuscule amounts of the drug on pot handled by people using fentanyl, much the same way $20-dollar bills are found to be widely contaminated with traces of cocaine. Just as you're not going to get high by licking a $20, you're not going to die by smoking weed contaminated by vanishingly-small traces of fentanyl.
The second link is the presence of marijuana in the bodies of some who have died of fentanyl overdoses. But that reveals only that some people use multiple drugs, not that the lethal fentanyl was in the weed.
The DEA, for its part, has not reported encountering "fentanyl-laced marijuana," but none of this has stopped Conway from making her bogus claim. She made the same claim to right activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in March.
That Conway continues to spout such nonsense is disturbing for a number of reasons, drug policy experts told Buzzfeed News last week.
"It's crazy that this story is coming out from our leaders," said epidemiologist Dan Ciccarone of the University of California, San Francisco. "It shows that concerns about fentanyl have reached the level of moral panic. Fear outweighs rational evidence. There is scant evidence for cannabis laced with fentanyl."
"This is part of a wider fentanyl panic that goes beyond having alternative facts and leads to bad decisions," added Northeastern University drug policy expert Leo Beletsky. "There's this mistaken belief that law enforcement are experts on the drugs they are seizing. That's just not the case, and that's part of the problem."
That's an important and under-emphasized point. Police are no more experts on drugs because they arrest drug users and sellers than they are experts on marital relations because they arrest people for domestic violence.
"The danger in a moral panic is that we see this overreaction that leads to a replay of the mistakes of the crack cocaine crisis," Beletsky said. "We need to move beyond the universe of alternative facts."
Unfortunately, this is an administration that swims in a sea of alternative facts. The least we can do is push back hard.