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Why you’re hearing so much about fentanyl these days

Some of the approximately 1 million fake pills containing fentanyl that were seized on July 5 from a home in Inglewood, Calif. (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration/AP)
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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) faced some criticism for comments he made during an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity on Tuesday evening.

The drug fentanyl, he said, was “the number one killer of Americans between the ages of 18 and 45.” He lifted an example from the news to make the point: “I don’t know if you just saw that story of a young woman who picked up a dollar bill sitting on the floor of McDonald’s and fell down because fentanyl was on that dollar bill,” McCarthy said. “This is how deadly this is.”

Well, no, that’s not how deadly fentanyl is. First and foremost, the woman didn’t die. But more importantly the story, promulgated in tabloid media coverage, is almost certainly not true. There’s no evidence that the bill the woman claims to have touched had any fentanyl on it. Medical experts have noted repeatedly that simply touching fentanyl is not enough to trigger an overdose or perhaps even any reaction. A researcher who spilled a large amount of liquid fentanyl on his hand discovered that he was not affected. So it’s not clear what happened to the woman or if she was having any sort of physical response that triggered her medical incident.

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But McCarthy wasn’t simply warning Fox News viewers that fentanyl was deadly — which it certainly can be when ingested deliberately in an effort to get high. He was exaggerating the risk of fentanyl to make a political point.

The Republican Party was going to produce a “commitment to America,” McCarthy told Hannity, including a pledge to “secure the border and stop this movement of fentanyl.” Because fentanyl was deadly, as evidenced by the woman in McDonald’s. “We’re going to hold this administration accountable,” he added.

That, often, is the point. Fentanyl was developed as a pain management drug for use in the treatment of cancer. Abuse of the drug is dangerous and a real problem. But it’s also a useful political wedge.

The drug is a synthetic opioid, a type of intoxicant made in chemical labs. In 2020, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) released a report detailing how the drug flows into the United States, often originating in China.

The DEA had already warned about the negative effects of fentanyl, reporting in 2018 that the drug and similar synthetic opioids had become “the most lethal category of opioids used in the United States.” Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows both the increase in drug overdoses in the United States and the increasing portion of those overdoses that are a function of fentanyl-like drugs.

(Not all states report specific causes of overdoses. Those that don’t are in gray above. Others didn’t break out synthetic opioids in every month during the period included above.)

One of the first moments at which Americans became familiar with fentanyl was in June 2016, when cocaine laced with fentanyl led to a number of overdoses in New Haven, Conn. Three people died. Search interest for “fentanyl” on Google, a good indicator of public interest, continued to climb from that point, spiking in November 2018 as the government reported that overdose deaths had surged, thanks in large part to fentanyl.

But notice the increase that begins at about 2021 on the chart above. Interest in fentanyl had declined from the 2018 peak but began to increase again in early 2021.

One reason for that is the particular type of media attention offered by McCarthy. Both CNN and MSNBC covered fentanyl a lot in April 2021, when the drug was mentioned as part of the trial of Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. That was unusual, though; the networks don’t usually devote much coverage to the drug.

Fox News, however, has — at least since February 2021.

One doesn’t need to be a political scientist to understand why. Fox News talks about fentanyl far more often than does its competitors, and it usually does so in precisely the context that McCarthy does: the U.S.-Mexico border. Since President Biden was inaugurated, the network has been more likely to talk about fentanyl while discussing immigration than it has been to discuss it in other contexts.

I looked at this subject in May. It’s now common for Republican legislators and conservative media to point to fentanyl smuggling at the border as a critique of the administration’s border policies — even though seizing the drug is what one would prefer happen following smuggling attempts and even though similar seizures during the Trump administration were hailed as examples of Trump’s robust approach to border security.

Seizures of fentanyl jumped in June 2020 and by now make up a greater volume of seizures than heroin. But such seizures are still a relatively small part of what’s stopped at the border. As the DEA explained in 2020, there’s also a fentanyl smuggling system that crosses the Canada-U. S. border; that gets far less attention.

Again: Fentanyl is a dangerous drug that’s killing tens of thousands of people a year. But it is also a useful political cudgel, often after its dangers have been exaggerated.

There’s another reason you’ve probably heard about fentanyl in recent months that bears mentioning. There have been a number of incidents reported over the past year in which police officers purportedly come into contact with the drug and suffer overdoses. These stories have generally been debunked on a case-by-case basis, from an article in Defector last August to one in the New York Times this week. As with the unfortunate woman in the McDonald’s, there’s no evidence that incidental contact between exposed skin and trafficked fentanyl can trigger a significant adverse reaction. As far back as 2017, a statement from the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology and the American College of Medical Toxicology noted that “the risk of clinically significant exposure to emergency responders is extremely low.”

The CDC had nonetheless hosted a video on its occupational health and safety website suggesting that there was a danger of overdose for law enforcement. The video centered on a purported incident in Virginia that even a CDC analysis indicated no presence of intoxicants in the urine of officers involved in the incident. The video has been removed from the agency’s website.

What triggered physical reactions in the police? One guess is that they are experiencing something akin to panic attacks, a physical manifestation of a psychological stressor. That the fear of fentanyl is in a weird way self-reinforcing: People — even police officers! — are so afraid of it that they have an alarming reaction to it.

It’s a fear that Kevin McCarthy and Fox News like to amplify to make a political point.