Drugs like fentanyl can be deadly – but so is misinformation about the real dangers

The absence of credible and accessible information about drugs plays a part in fuelling fake news about them

Ian Hamilton
Monday 09 August 2021 10:35
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California deputy trainee nearly dies after being exposed to fentanyl

Not for the first-time misinformation about the potent opiate fentanyl has emerged. There is little doubt that this drug can kill, but as far as I can tell the rumour that merely touching the drug or someone who has used it can be fatal is not evidenced. This rumour was triggered by a well-meaning attempt by San Diego’s sheriff department to raise awareness of how fentanyl can induce fatal overdose. The video shows an officer collapsing after investigating and handling a substance believed to be fentanyl.

In my view, not only do these videos propagate misinformation, they are potentially lethal. Time is of the essence when responding to an opiate overdose, delaying intervention because you think that contact with someone who has used fentanyl will cause you to overdose is now a reality even among some healthcare staff.

I can understand how this type of “fake news” gets traction as people are attracted to the bizarre and serious effects of drugs that are emerging or that they are unfamiliar with. The whole process is accelerated and facilitated by social media which sees many of these stories going viral. Researchers calculate that false information about drugs has a reach 15 times greater than factual information.

Looking back over recent years, a clear pattern emerges of what is required to create a drug panic: the substance must produce a really weird effect and it’s helpful if it has a name that sounds exotic or, even better, it has a scary name. Reports generating this type of panic are often based on a single case study and all too often don’t wait for a forensic toxicology report, which would provide evidence of what the substance actually is.

The recent concern about a drug referred to as “monkey dust” – ticks the exotic sounding name box – was reported to produce “superhuman” strength in those that ingested it, or even face eating attacks – meeting the scary criteria. Neither of these turned out to be true but were based on a single event and certainly before any formal toxicology was established. But by then it’s too late, the story is out, and fear has spread.

Although false information about drugs will be off putting to some, they may generate interest and appeal to others. For example, you can imagine some young men might be attracted to taking a drug which gives them superhuman strength. Or for those who think they have nothing to lose or feel life is mundane, they may embrace the risk of not knowing what effect a drug will have once they’ve taken it.

We have witnessed how it is often marginalised groups that are the ones who suffer the most when these rumours circulate. Individuals sleeping rough or prisoners were called “zombies” when intoxicated with the drug “spice” – a substance often sold as a synthetic form of cannabis, even though its effects bear no resemblance to those of cannabis intoxication. All of which adds another layer of stigma to groups that are already heavily stigmatised and viewed by some to be less than human to begin with.

The problem with stigma is that it can be internalised and quickly reaches a point where those affected are left feeling powerless to change the unfair hand they have been dealt. Anything that contributes to this, such as misinformation, is far from harmless and benign. Hope is a fragile commodity when you have nowhere to live or are struggling to be given a fair chance of getting a job, as many homeless people or ex-prisoners will attest.

Fentanyl is just the latest drug where such information has emerged and spread quickly, but I’m sure it won’t be the last, another drug panic will be along soon, that’s certain. For me, the absence of credible and accessible information about drugs plays a part in fuelling misinformation about them. In my view, this could in part be mitigated by having a trustworthy public health resource that those using drugs, and people concerned about drugs, could access for facts rather than fiction.

The potential to reduce harm both directly by the substance but also indirectly for those that are marginalised is clear. Given Boris Johnson’s recent public statement of wanting to bear down on recreational drug users there is little hope of that happening anytime soon. Drugs and information about them are sadly an evidence free zone and politicians seem content with this despite the fatal consequences.

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