False Narratives Driven by Law Enforcement & Perpetuated by Media Risk Recreating Same Racially-Biased Harms of the Past
New York, NY – Today, in response to a disputed video from the San Diego County Sherriff’s Department purporting to show an officer overdosing from simply touching fentanyl, Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, released the following statement:
“It is unconscionable and completely irresponsible for law enforcement organizations to continue fabricating false narratives around fentanyl. Content like this simply creates more fear and irrational panic that fuels further punitive responses to the overdose crisis, instead of the public health approach we need. We already know how this story goes, because we experienced it in the 80’s and 90’s with crack-cocaine. Law enforcement-driven, media-perpetuated hysteria inevitably leads to extreme racially-biased enforcement and mandatory minimum sentencing.
“TIME Magazine covers of so-called ‘crack kids’ that drove extreme sentencing in the 90’s has now been replaced with viral videos produced by local police departments purporting to show officers overdosing after barely coming in contact with fentanyl. Both have been proved false, but the devastating consequences of the policies they fueled unjustly remain.
“It is incredibly dangerous to go back down this path, especially when the United States is experiencing the highest rate of overdose deaths in history and we have finally begun to make progress on reducing extreme sentencing.
“Rather, we must divest from our reliance on policing and punishment-first strategies that have consistently failed to save lives or reduce the supply of illicit fentanyl-related substances. And instead, we must prioritize forward-thinking, health- and evidence-based approaches—like what the S.T.O.P. Fentanyl Act calls for—that address the root cause of fentanyl-related overdoses and other associated harms.
“We call on media to think twice about amplifying these harmful narratives that have devastated Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities over the last 50 years and led to more dire public health and societal consequences as a result. To that extent, we would encourage media to engage more public health experts who can actually speak to the science and solutions, rather than law enforcement, when covering public health crises such as these. And we urge Congress to swiftly pass the S.T.O.P. Fentanyl Act, so we can begin saving lives.”
Quote from Ryan Marino, MD Medical Toxicologist, Addiction Medicine Specialist and Emergency Physician Assistant Professor, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine:
“Despite anecdotal reports from non-medical sources about overdose from "exposure" to fentanyl, it is not possible to overdose on fentanyl or fentanyl analogues through accidental skin contact or from close proximity alone.
“Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues do not readily cross the skin barrier and do not aerosolize well. The only way to overdose on these substances is from injecting, snorting, or otherwise ingesting them, or in the case of the fentanyl patch, from mixing with an absorbable solvent and applying very large quantities for very long durations of time. Furthermore, opioid overdose is a clinical syndrome with well-defined characteristics that do not align with these reports.
“This misinformation not only hinders appropriate responses to people who use drugs and resuscitations of people experiencing true overdose, but also worsens the stigma faced by people with substance use disorders and has been used to increase criminalization of this already vulnerable group. The fear and worry generated by these reports, too, is likely causing the symptoms of anxiety and panic that people are experiencing in these events. Our current pandemic has sadly demonstrated all too well how medical misinformation harms everyone, and knowing that more than 93,000 Americans died from overdose in 2020, we all have an obligation to ensure that everyone is better informed.”