How Prohibition Causes Deaths From Fentanyl-Spiked Heroin

The more successful drug warriors are, the more dangerous drugs become.



Remember the guy who bought 80-proof vodka that turned out to be 190-proof Everclear and died from alcohol poisoning? Probably not, because that sort of thing almost never happens in a legal drug market, where merchants or manufacturers who made such a substitution, whether deliberately or accidentally, would face potentially ruinous economic and legal consequences. In a black market, by contrast, customers frequently get something different from what they thought they were buying: something weaker, something stronger, or some other substance entirely. As The Washington Post notes in a story about fentanyl-laced heroin, the results can be fatal.

Fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller, is something like 40 times as strong as pure heroin. Heroin dealers therefore have been known to spike their product with fentanyl from black-market laboratories, giving it an extra kick that partly makes up for the dilution that occurs between production and retail sale. Last March, the Post notes, "the DEA issued a nationwide health alert on fentanyl, reporting that state and local drug labs reported seeing 3,344 fentanyl samples in 2014, up from 942 in 2013." The Post cites three fatal overdoses involving fentanyl-spiked heroin in New York and Connecticut, plus other cases where heroin users "had to be resuscitated at hospitals." It reports that "the last major outbreak of fentanyl-related deaths began in 2005 and lasted for two years, killing more than 1,000 people."


Although such fatalities are commonly called "drug-related deaths," they are more appropriately viewed as prohibition-related deaths. The artificially high prices and profits created by prohibition give dealers a strong incentive to dilute their products, and the black market's lack of legal accountability allows them to do so. If they go too far and customers start to balk, adding a little fentanyl is a cheap, easy, and occasionally lethal solution. Variations in heroin purity can have similar consequences, as highlighted by an old government-sponsored anti-drug ad (left) that quotes the mother of a heroin user who died from an overdose: "The problem is, the heroin in Orlando is so pure….One reason we have tourists dying here is they don't know the purity."

Prohibition created the hazard of unpredictable potency, and enforcing prohibition, to the extent that it has any effect at all, exacerbates the problem. Drug warriors commonly cite lower potency as a sign of success, equivalent to an increase in price for heroin of the same strength. Taking them at their word, effective enforcement leads heroin users to take larger doses, a habit that can be deadly when they encounter an unusually potent batch. Effective enforcement also means that dealers are more likely to mix fentanyl into their heroin (or lavamisole into their cocaine), so it magnifies the dangers that users face from unadvertised ingredients.

Although you can call such effects unintended, they are by now anything but surprising, and they happen to dovetail with prohibitionists' avowed goal of discouraging drug use. The more dangerously unpredictable drugs are, the less likely people are to use them. That calculation, of course, sacrifices the interests (and sometimes the lives) of undeterred drug users for the sake of protecting more risk-averse people from their own bad decisions. But that is what prohibition is all about.

NEXT: Washington Prosecutor Explains Why He Charged Teenaged Pot Smokers With Felonies

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  1. Exactly. Feature, not bug, for the drug warriors.

  2. Although you can call such effects unintended, they are by now anything but surprising, and they happen to dovetail with prohibitionists’ avowed goal of discouraging drug use.

    Something about “foreseeable consequences are not unintended”.

  3. We had to kill junkies in order to save them.

    1. …But they’re not using anymore, are they?

      /drug warrior

  4. Remember the guy who bought 80-proof vodka that turned out to be 190-proof Everclear and died from alcohol poisoning?…Fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller, is something like 40 times as strong as pure heroin. Heroin dealers therefore have been known to spike their product with fentanyl from black-market laboratories, giving it an extra kick that partly makes up for the dilution that occurs between production and retail sale

    Analogy fail.

    Your everclear example would be equivalent to the heroin containing more heroin, not containing a different substance to mask the dilution. You could get a tortured analogue if the buyer were looking for everclear and used a flame test to determine proof rating, but it turned out to be vodka spiked with methanol.

      1. Kind of like poisoning vicodin with acetaminophen?

        1. Worse. The LD50 for methanol is around 16 oz for a 200lb man. Blindness can result from far lower doses.

  5. Any drug warrior who would describe themselves as compassionate is lying.

    In reality they’re psychopaths.

    1. Yes, this! (see my comment down thread). It seems to be the same social conservatives and progressives who try to control every other aspect of people’s lives. If they really cared about the damage that drug abuse can wreak in people’s lives, they’d be equally concerned about the havoc wrought by their policies.

  6. One of the other unintended consequences of these ill-conceived drug policies is that the people who desperately need these medications to mitigate real problems cannot get them, or have to jump through hoops to get them. Because a relatively minuscule number of addicts overdose or die on them, a vast quantity of chronic pain sufferers go without these drugs that would make their lives bearable.

    Why is this even a considerable outcome? Why is this this trade-off even considered? Because someone, somewhere, might get what they want. Because someone might suffer unintended consequences from living with an addict. And because nannies don’t really believe that chronic pain is any more than an mere inconvenience.

    1. See also: MDMA and related drugs get banned, then turn out much later to have beneficial effects for those suffering from PTSD.

    2. “And because nannies don’t really believe that your chronic pain is any more than an mere inconvenience.”

      There FTFY

  7. And then there is also the fact that Fentanyl ot not, if someone in the house has overdosed and you call 911 the cops are going to show up and someone is going to jail. So the incentive is to wait as long as possible to call. But don’t forget that the War on Drugs is all about how compassionate we are because drugs are bad for you. If that does not make sense to you congratulations, you’re sane.

  8. On the radio today the morning hosts were cautioning Maine voters that if they voted to legalize recreational marijuana, that the roads would be a river of blood just as they are now in CO and WA. So voters must reject recreational marijuana even if it saves one life. Never mind all the lives and families that are destroyed by locking recreational users in government cages. That’s different because it is done with good intentions.

    1. Driving at 10 mph while stuffing a Big Whopper into your face is the cause of 150% of car accidents. Fact.

      1. It probably doesn’t help when your entire country drives on the incorrect side of the road.

    2. Not to mention the ones shot as an example of what happens to scofflaws in religious sassieties.

  9. Central planners are frequently surprised by human nature.

    1. Probably because they find it so lacking in themselves.

  10. But, but heroin killed that fat actor. Why do you people hate fat actors?

  11. The Amazon costumer comments for the adult women’s “Minion” Halloween costume are indistinguishable from pornography:

    2 out of 5 stars Cute, but goggles are unwearable
    By ddfpv on September 26, 2013
    This is the only minion “woman” costume out there, unless you make it yourself. Costume itself is cute, but found it a few inches two short. I’m 5’6″ and 120 pounds. I usually wear small, but got a medium and its still very short. If I bend over even slightly, you’ll see my butt. And I’m a skinny person, so its not like my butt sticks out at all… I’m going to a kids party, and even tights would be a bit inappropriate with this crowd… The stocking are just normal stocking you’d find at a drugstore. I don’t plan to wear them.

    5 out of 5 stars Actually Fits Gals With Curves- Shocker!
    By Dina on October 19, 2014
    I wanted to write a review of this costume for all the girls like me who have trouble finding a good fit in a ready-made costume. I am 5’7″, 170 pounds and I have VERY big boobs! …

    1. 1 out of 5 stars Missing accessories
      By ronni822 on January 8, 2014
      Received the minion dress today but it was missing all accessories. The item packaging looked like it was ripped open on one side and maybe the accessories fell out,
      Regarding size -… Here are the measurements for the L-sized dress (if others can post the measurements for the S, M sizes – I bet it would help the rest of us out):
      Chest: 42in Waist: 38in Hips: 41in…

      1. If the manufacturer had listed the sizes in actual units of measure instead of arbitrary letters, maybe your first reivewer wouldn’t be falling out of her costume.

    2. 36-24-36?
      Only if she’s 5’3″

    3. I’ll be in my bunk.

  12. The DEA should take the eagle off their emblem and replace it with Honey Badger

    1. How about a nest of spiders?

  13. ” Drug warriors commonly cite lower potency as a sign of success.”


    Except when they talk about “increased potency” of marijuana, which they cite as a sign that the war on drugs needs to be escalated further, and is more needed now than ever.

    1. rethink what you typed.

      if drugwarriors consider lower potency a sign of success, and they think mj potency is increasing, then it follows that they would want more enforcement to achieve lower potency/’success’.

      logically sound. retarded, but logical.

      1. I know, I know. That was my point. Like any good government bureaucrat seeking to preserve his or her job and his or her agency, “successes” are cited as reasons why the program should continue (“We’re winning!”), while lack of “success” (It’s never called “failure”) is cited as proof why the program is needed “now more than ever.” Heads they win, tails we lose.

  14. Besides shielding from product liability, prohibition laws provide excellent tax loopholes, especially for corporations able to produce laboratory drugs, and police and government personnel with ready access to lists of users and distributors. The sudden loss of this stream of unregulated currency into the banking system sufficed to shut down every bank in These States in 1933 when it was suddenly interrupted by Herbert Hoover. George Bush used similar tactics to bring on another the crash and depression through prohibitionist zeal and asset-forfeiture arrangements with venal state governments in 2007.

  15. When people were dying from deadly alcohols fermented by black market forces during the Prohibition, the reaction from a leading prohibitionist was “they deserve it”. Nothing changes.

  16. black market laboratories

    That good ol’ Yankee ingenuity is alive and well in the South.

  17. Point of fact, it’s only sometimes regular fentanyl. There’s dozens, maybe even hundreds, of fentanyl analogs, many of which far exceed the potency of plain old fentanyl. Additional, there’s a wide variance in half-lives and fentanyl’s is far shorter than morphine/heroin, so it’s less desirable than some of the other analogs. Since there’s no suitable commercial preparation for using as a cut (patch, lollipop, or effervescent tablet), it has to be synthesized anyway, so why not make a better analog? The synthesis is far more complex than meth, so it’s being done by an actual chemist anyway.

    On a different note, it’s ironic that LE likes to talk about how dangerous and deadly improperly cut product is, like people should be scared, when the first thing any junkie wants to know when they hear about “deadly, dangerous fentanyl-cut dope” is “WHERE CAN I GET IT???”

    The authorities WANT the danger of death and disease anyway (see: opposition to needle exchange and nalaxone kits), that and imprisonment as a punishment is all about sadomoralism, ‘we know what’s right and we’ll use force to make you comply’. These arbitrarily defined psychoactive chemicals (but not some other ones) are EVIL, so we’ll ruin your life so that you won’t have your life ruined by evil. So of course the fact that millions suffer in agony without opiates just so others won’t take them for fun is completely acceptable, because don’t forget that addiction is so evil that death and imprisonment are better.

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