Why do you hear so much about fentanyl these days


House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has come under fire for comments he made during an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity on Tuesday night.

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

Well, no, that’s not how deadly fentanyl is. First and foremost, the woman is not dead. But above all the story, promulgated in tabloid media coverage, is almost certainly not true. There are no proof that the banknote the woman claims to have touched contained fentanyl. Medical experts have repeatedly noted that simply touching fentanyl is not enough to trigger an overdose or possibly even a reaction. A researcher who spilled a large amount of liquid fentanyl on his hand found he was unaffected. So it’s unclear what happened to the woman or if she had some sort of physical reaction that triggered her medical incident.

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But McCarthy didn’t just warn Fox News viewers that fentanyl was deadly — which certainly can be when deliberately ingested for the purpose of getting high. He exaggerated the risk of fentanyl to make a Politics indicate.

The Republican Party was going to produce a “commitment to America,” McCarthy told Hannity, including a commitment to “secure the border and stop this fentanyl movement.” Because fentanyl was deadly, as McDonald’s wife testifies. “We will hold this administration accountable,” he added.

This is often the goal. Fentanyl was developed as a pain management drug for use in cancer treatment. Drug abuse is dangerous and a real problem. But it is also a useful political corner.

The drug is a synthetic opioid, a type of intoxicant made in chemistry labs. In 2020, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) published a report retailer how drugs come to the United States, often from China.

The DEA had already warned about the negative effects of fentanyl, reports in 2018 that the drug and similar synthetic opioids had become “the deadliest class 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 growing share of those overdoses that are due to fentanyl-type drugs.

(Not all states report specific causes of overdoses. Those that do not are shaded in gray above. Others did not break out on synthetic opioids every month during the time period included above. .)

One of the first times Americans became familiar with fentanyl was in June 2016, when cocaine laced with fentanyl led to several overdoses in New Haven, Conn. Three people died. Interest in searching for “fentanyl” on Google, a good indicator of public interest, continued to rise from this point, peaking in November 2018 as the government reported that overdose deaths had increased, thanks in large part to fentanyl.

But notice the increase that starts around 2021 on the graph above. Interest in fentanyl had declined from the 2018 peak, but began to rise again in early 2021.

One reason for this is the particular type of media attention offered by McCarthy. CNN and MSNBC covered fentanyl extensively in April 2021, when the drug was mentioned in connection with the trial of Minneapolis Police Department Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. It was unusual, however; the networks generally do not devote much coverage to drugs.

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

You don’t need to be a political scientist to understand why. Fox News talks about fentanyl far more often than its competitors, and it usually does so precisely in the context of McCarthy: the US-Mexico border. Since President Biden’s inauguration, the network has been more likely to talk about fentanyl while discussing immigration than discussing it in other settings.

I looked at this topic in May. It’s now commonplace for Republican lawmakers and conservative media to point to border smuggling of fentanyl as criticism of the administration’s border policies — even though striking drugs are what one would prefer to happen after smuggling attempts and even though similar seizures under the Trump administration have been hailed as examples of Trump’s robust approach to border security.

Fentanyl seizures surged in June 2020 and now account for a larger volume of seizures than heroin. But these seizures still only represent a relatively small part of what is stopped at the border. As the DEA explained in 2020, there is also a fentanyl smuggling scheme that crosses the Canada-US border; which attracts much less attention.

Again: fentanyl is a dangerous drug that kills tens of thousands of people every year. But it’s 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’s worth mentioning. A number of incidents have been reported over the past year in which police officers allegedly came into contact with the drug and overdosed. These stories have generally been debunked on a case-by-case basis, from a article in Defector last August at one in the New York Times this week. As with the unfortunate woman at McDonald’s, there is no evidence that accidental contact between exposed skin and doctored fentanyl could trigger a significant adverse reaction. As early 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 an overdose for law enforcement. The video centered on an alleged incident in Virginia where even a CDC scan showed no intoxicants in the officers’ urine. involved in the incident. The video has been removed from the agency’s website.

What triggered physical reactions in the police? One hypothesis is that they live something resembling panic attacks, a physical manifestation of a psychological stressor. That the fear of fentanyl is self-reinforcing in a weird way: people – even the police! — are so afraid of it that they react to it in an alarming way.

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

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