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By : Grace Raih

7 min read

There is no debate as to whether or not fentanyl is a deadly, highly-addictive drug. Yet, when an illicit substance begins to take on a boogeyman persona, it can lead to societal consequences for those who suffer under its addiction. During the 1980s, at the height of the War on Drugs, the sensationalist and deeply racist notion of “crack babies” criminalized Black women and fostered a culture that vilified those with substance abuse issues. This moral panic dehumanized Black Americans while treating a drug epidemic with prison sentences.

A 2020 study on drug prevention programs within law enforcement found that as police response to overdose calls increased, officer endorsement of overdose prevention strategies, such as naloxone trainings, decreased—an effect known as “compassion fatigue.” Good Samaritan Laws provide limited immunity for overdose victims when 911 is called, protecting them from prosecution for possession of controlled substances and paraphernalia. These laws do not shield those already ensnared in the criminal justice system, and thus many hesitate to call for help. This same study found that 1 in 3 officers report making an arrest at an overdose scene in the past 6 months.

According to the CDC, 107,622 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2021, with more than 71,000 deaths linked to illicit fentanyl. As the US continues to grapple with this epidemic, misinformation about how fentanyl overdoses happen has spread rapidly. The Harm Reduction Journal published a study that showed stories of accidental fentanyl exposure made up over 150 media reports in 2017. Many of these have involved drug busts in which cops report accidentally coming in contact with fentanyl and then overdosing. Accidental fentanyl overdose due to incidental skin contact is physically impossible and has been repeatedly refuted by experts, including the American College of Medical Toxicology, amongst other medical institutions.

This copaganda is an avenue to further stigmatize those who suffer from addiction, painting them as a dangerous element of society not worthy of empathy and treatment, but imprisonment. Phrases like “compassion fatigue” focus on the experience of the police while erasing the humanity of the drug user. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse published a study in 2020 showing that 31% of surveyed police officers reported an increase in negative feeling post-overdose prevention programs. The overlap of those experiencing homelessness and substance abuse is well documented. Cities across the country have decided to combat the housing crisis with aggressive police tactics like camping bans and encampment sweeps, which further criminalize rather than address the root causes of homelessness.

In 2019, an internal memo revealed the Department of Homeland Security was considering labeling fentanyl a “weapon of mass destruction.” To treat an addictive drug as a terrorist issue and not a public health crisis is ridiculous. The opioid epidemic should be discussed with seriousness and accuracy, not false narratives and propaganda that do nothing but exacerbate fear, stigma and moral panic, all while empowering the carceral state. Experts say that strategies to address the fentanyl epidemic include accessible naloxone, safe consumption sites, and a safe supply of regulated drugs. Large scale efforts such as universal health care (including addiction care), universal basic income, affordable housing, as well as working to end mass incarceration, would go a long way toward mitigating human suffering that often leads to drug use in the first place.

Originally published in-print in Boston Compass Newspaper #154 January 2023


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