Contrary to reports by news organizations around the country, the Hamilton County Coroner’s office in Cincinnati tells IL that they do not know of any cases in which a person has fatally overdosed by using marijuana that is laced with fentanyl — the powerful opioid that is at least 50 times more potent than heroin and causing a spike in overdoses in the region.

The myth appears to have been started with a report by Cincinnati station WLWT, which covered a press conference held by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco on Monday about the increasing threat of opioid addiction and overdoses. At that event, Sammarco said that her office had seen fentanyl mixed with other drugs like cocaine and marijuana, which WLWT ran with the headline “Hamilton County coroner: ‘We have seen fentanyl mixed with marijuana,’” along with claiming Sammarco stated that “synthetic opiates like fentanyl have been found in marijuana.”

Since that report was published, news organizations and websites across the country have run with alarming headlines about marijuana supplies being laced with the deadly opioid fentanyl, including the Daily Caller and Salon, only serving to amplify similar rumors posted on social media.

However, Andrea Hatton, an administrator with the Hamilton County Coroner’s office, tells IL that WLWT misinterpreted the coroner’s remarks and “created a lot of confusion.” Hatton explained that the office runs blood screens as part of the autopsy process in suspected overdose cases, and they often find several different drugs in a person’s system. But just because two different drugs are present does not mean they were taken together, as the original report had implied.

“We in Cincinnati have not, in fact, seen fentanyl-laced marijuana,” said Hatton. “There are no reported cases of it.”

Jefferson County Coroner Barbara Weakley-Jones also told IL that she had not heard of any fentanyl-laced marijuana in Louisville, which has been hit particularly hard by fatal and non-fatal fentanyl overdoses since March of 2016. She said that through the first three months of 2017, eight of the roughly 190 people to fatally overdose on drugs in the county had both marijuana and fentanyl in their system, “but that does not mean that the fentanyl was mixed in the marijuana,” adding that marijuana stays in a person’s system “much longer than the fentanyl.”

Hatton of the Cincinnati coroner’s office did add the caveat that illegal drug suppliers are constantly changing and upgrading their synthetic drugs and methods of delivery, and couldn’t definitely rule out the possibility of any drug being laced with more powerful substances.

Since last March, Louisville’s health department has warned of fentanyl being cut into the heroin supplies of unsuspecting users — as they look nearly identical when mixed in powdered form — in addition to counterfeit pills appearing to be normal opioid painkillers but actually containing fentanyl.

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]