Prohibition Gives Us Heroin Spiked With an Elephant Tranquilizer

Carfentanil-related deaths illustrate how banning drugs makes them more dangerous.



Police think a string of more than 200 overdoses in the Cincinnati area during the last two weeks, including three fatalities, may be connected to the synthetic narcotic carfentanil, a powerful painkiller ordinarily used to tranquilize elephants and other large animals. Carfentanil, which is said to be something like 10,000 times as potent a painkiller as morphine, is an analog of fentanyl, which is about 80 times as potent as morphine. (That does not necessarily mean carfentanil is 125 times as dangerous as fentanyl, which has a narrower margin of safety when used for medical purposes because the ratio of a lethal dose to an effective dose is lower.) Both fentanyl and carfentanil have shown up in powder sold as heroin, either as a substitute or as an adjunct to highly diluted batches of the opiate. So far lab tests have not confirmed the presence of carfentanil in samples of drugs sold in Cincinnati, but emergency responders think they are dealing with something especially strong because multiple doses of the opioid antagonist naloxone have frequently been necessary to reverse the overdoses they are seeing.

Whether the Cincinnati overdoses involve carfentanil, fentanyl, or simply an unusually pure batch of heroin, the fact that time-consuming lab tests are required to say exactly what's in the powder that drug users are snorting, smoking, or injecting points to the real source of the problem: prohibition, which makes drug potency inconsistent and unreliable. In contrast with prescription pharmaceuticals or beverage alcohol, which are delivered in carefully measured and accurately labeled doses, black-market heroin is unpredictable and may not even be heroin at all. That's not to say people don't die from consuming too much oxycodone or vodka (or by mixing them with other depressants, which is typically the case with deaths involving opioids). But prohibition makes it unnecessarily difficult for drug users to avoid fatal or nearly fatal outcomes.

Drug warriors compound the uncertainty associated with the black market through enforcement efforts aimed at boosting retail prices. To the extent that they actually make heroin more expensive to produce and distribute, they encourage dilution, which they portray as a sign of success. But weaker heroin encourages users to take larger doses, a habit that may prove lethal when purity bounces back, and encourages dealers to compensate by adding boosters such as fentanyl and carfentanil. Meanwhile, the ongoing crackdown on painkillers encourages opioid users to switch from predictably potent pharmaceuticals to whatever's in the packets sold by heroin dealers, which might be an elephant tranquilizer.

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  1. When something is banned, it’s not supposed to happen. People always ruin the plan.

  2. They’ll spin this into a reason to clamp down even harder. Like a dog returning to its vomit it’s just what they do.

    1. Here’s my plan. That shit is dangerous. Leave it alone and use your free will to do something else with your time.

  3. True story: I had a fraternity brother who was really into hallucinogenics and drugs in general. One time we didn’t see him for a couple days, so when his roommate showed up at dinner, we asked what was up. Apparently he had taken a horse tranquilizer and had been sitting on the couch in their room, unmoving, for 48 hours. The roommate said he was breathing and had a pulse, so wasn’t too worried. Dude eventually turned up by the end of the week, described the experience as “intense.”

  4. 200 overdoses in the Cincinnati area … painkiller ordinarily used to tranquilize elephants and other large animals.

    Harambe’s Revenge

  5. Who cares? They broke the rules. They deserve to die.
    /adds wood alcohol to industrial solvent

    1. I always find it interesting that the same people who don’t give a shit if addicts die, do give a shit if those same people are allowed to do drugs. Very telling.

    2. What I find interesting is that the paramedics are guessing that they are dealing with the carfentanyl! They have yet to identify it as the cause. It is just another group jumping the gun to get more proof that chronic pain patients need to be refused adequate pain care. They use it as an excuse to torture us! And the drug war, again, is identified as the one thing that guarantees that you don’t know what is in that bag! Be careful, people. You may satisfy your death wish! I wish I could get off of my medications. I am afraid the high dose of gabapentin, that I take, is going to lead me to an early grave! But, I would risk death if my meds were taken away from me. The suffering can be intense!

  6. The drug warriors clearly imprinted on Eliot Ness, as portrayed in films and on television, and learned no other lesson from Prohibition. They get off charging around in ‘battle rattle’ (or vicariously, by enabling other to do so) and kicking in doors. The ‘drug war’ turns both sides into testosterone-poisoned thugs, to the detriment of society at large.

    Maybe we need to start asking, “Who would you rather have preying on the addictive personalities of society? The ‘Drug Lords’ or Bayer?”

  7. As Dennis Miller once said (before he went to the dark side), if they successfully banned every possible substance, people would spin in place until they got dizzy.

  8. The drug warriors actually do not car if people die while using drugs, because drugs. Drug warriors fetishize the shame they have successfully attached to the stigma of drug use. They do not distinguish between responsible recreational use of intoxicants by adults and reckless abuse.

    They think people who overdose and die deserve it, because drugs.

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