The fear-mongering narrative around fentanyl has eerie parallels to the crack epidemic

Instead of learning from the past, fear and panic are driving policy that doubles down on failed tactics

Published January 15, 2023 2:00PM (EST)

Illegal fentanyl is safely handled and contained. (Getty Images/Darwin Brandis)
Illegal fentanyl is safely handled and contained. (Getty Images/Darwin Brandis)

Fentanyl seems to have a strange grip on the public mind these days, as breathless (often questionable) narratives around this drug are everywhere. According to the news media, this mysterious substance is appearing on shopping cart handles, in children's Halloween candy, in baby formula, and even poisoning police officers who are near it. Many media outlets push unsubstantiated rumors about this phantom menace, stoking fears that fentanyl could strike any person at any time. 

Yet in all this breathless coverage, expert sources such as doctors, recovery advocates, and people who work on the front lines of America's overdose crisis and come in contact with fentanyl all the time, are rarely asked for comment. 

This strategy of "shock and awe" isn't new. It's a playbook we've seen before. And if we don't change the narrative around fentanyl, we're doomed to repeat the same mistakes—and get the same deadly consequences.

Is fentanyl as scary as it is depicted?

Fentanyl is portrayed as a lethal illicit opioid that can kill with a single touch. Each week seems to bring a news story about a police officer who arrives on the scene of a minor drug bust and claims to "overdose" on fentanyl through casual exposure, either by touching fentanyl or simply being in its presence. 

At the same time, fentanyl is well-known and studied in clinical settings. It is a medication that is used safely in hospitals everyday for anesthesia, where deaths from it are quite rare. If you've had surgery with anesthesia, the odds are good that you were given fentanyl during the procedure. So, why aren't you dead or foaming at the mouth? 

Like fentanyl, crack was said to be so addictive and dangerous that only an all-out war on drugs could stop it.

The answer is simple. It's physiologically impossible to overdose on fentanyl by merely touching it. Toxicologists and medical experts have repeatedly debunked claims of accidental fentanyl exposure, but in this atmosphere of misinformation and overreaction, the truth doesn't seem to even register. 

It's true that the fentanyl created in illicit drug labs and distributed on the street is different from the pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl administered during surgery. But neither type can kill someone through simple skin contact. Nor is it likely that someone is lacing Halloween candy with a valuable street drug.

The narrative of misinformation surrounding fentanyl is frightening—and ultimately, those lies are what put people's lives at risk.

A fear-mongering playbook that stands the test of time

Fentanyl is a convenient bogeyman in what has become the newest wave of the American war on drugs. The playbook that is pushing the fentanyl scare narrative is almost identical to the one deployed during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

The parallels between crack and fentanyl are striking. When it hit the streets almost four decades ago, crack was presented as a new, scary drug—just like fentanyl. As crack proliferated in Black and urban communities, it was portrayed as a "Black drug" by the media. This fueled racist myths and misinformation about "crack babies" and so-called "super predators," a myth perpetuated by politicians. Like fentanyl, crack was said to be so addictive and dangerous that only an all-out war on drugs could stop it. Myths about its danger and potency were used to justify new levels of policing and punishment—which specifically targeted Black people. Just as criminalization and harsh punishment worsened the crack epidemic, the same thing is happening now with fentanyl. 

Worse, demonization of fentanyl — and its depiction as a magical evil powder where even minute quantities can destroy, say, police (just by touching it) — belies its legitimate medical use. If this continues, people with chronic pain who use prescription fentanyl to manage their medical needs could struggle to access life-sustaining medications. The results will be the same: crackdowns, severe punishments, and prisons crammed with people who need treatment instead of jail time. 

Helping people is more humane and less expensive than another drug war

Misinformation about fentanyl abounds, and basic facts can be hard to come by given how the mainstream news narrative rarely questions the idea that merely looking at the powder can cause seizures, as numerous uncritical news stories vis-a-vis police reports attest. Fentanyl still makes headlines daily, and was a star subject during the 2022 midterms. With a new Congress now in place and a presidential election just around the corner, we're going to be hearing a lot more about fentanyl. But will we be hearing the truth, or just some well-spun lies?

Instead of creating policies that will prevent this crisis from ballooning to even more catastrophic outcomes, decision-makers are using fentanyl as an opportunity to grab power.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle are now crafting legislation to "protect" police and border patrol agents from fentanyl "exposure." However, these actions are misguided. Rather than disproportionately focusing on the supply side of the drug crisis and targeting people who use drugs — people who deserve compassion, access to recovery resources, harm reduction, and treatment — we must have policies that take a more strategic and humane approach to the demand side. Each year, police make more than one million arrests for drug possession. That's six times as many arrests for drug possession than drug sales.

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Yet instead of helping those who struggle with addiction, states continue to implement three-strikes drug laws, prison for possession, and drug induced homicide convictions that carry decade-long prison sentences. Several state attorneys general are even calling to have fentanyl classified as a "Weapon of Mass Destruction," potentially opening a Pandora's Box of anti-drug user laws that could severely worsen America's overdose crisis.

Reaching across the aisle isn't enough to end the crisis

Over the past several years, many leaders have been able to address the addiction and overdose crisis through unity, compassion, and evidence-based policy. Sadly, when it comes to fentanyl, a consensus is hard to find. Fentanyl and its scare narrative have become a wedge issue for many policymakers and media. Rather than push a public health narrative and share the truth about fentanyl, its risks, and its solutions, the drug has become sensationalist clickbait. Fears of fentanyl create opportunities for those on the left and the right.

This type of toxic storytelling isn't new—and neither are the solutions to widespread overdoses and drug risks. We know what works and we know what doesn't. All we have to do is look at history. But irresponsible reactions are taking the place of thoughtful contemplation and informed decisions. Instead of creating policies that will prevent this crisis from ballooning to even more catastrophic outcomes, decision-makers are using fentanyl as an opportunity to grab power and the public ear. It's Crack 2.0 — and undoubtedly, the same lethal consequences are right around the corner for fentanyl, too.

Let there be no doubt, action is needed to address fentanyl. It is a piece of the opioid overdose crisis that continues to affect millions of Americans' lives. Those of us doing the work on the ground know that every day, we lose hundreds of people to preventable overdoses—often, overdoses where fentanyl is involved. The help we needed should have come years ago, and we are working against the clock to save lives. The type of action we take will determine if we actually end this crisis for good, or if we layer even worse policy over failed attempts that will add to the death toll.

Ending it for good means putting the drug war playbook back on the shelf. It means refocusing media outlets on accurate reporting and public health information. And it means calling on those in elected office to protect our common good. We can't have another War on Drugs in America and expect to save lives. The cost is too high—to families, communities, taxpayers, and even our criminal justice system. We have to flip the script on fentanyl if we hope to survive.



By Ryan Hampton

Ryan Hampton is a nationally recognized recovery advocate, community organizer, and person in long-term recovery. He is the author of "Unsettled: How the Purdue Pharma Bankruptcy Failed the Victims of the American Overdose Crisis." Follow him on Twitter: @RyanForRecovery

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Addiction Commentary Crack-cocaine Fentanyl Mental Health Moral Panics News Media Sensationalism