The second Republican debate of the 2024 presidential campaign cycle took place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Wednesday, and at various points throughout the night the topic turned to drug policy.
The candidates argued over the proliferation of fentanyl—the synthetic opioid significantly more potent than morphine or heroin that is often found mixed with other narcotics purchased on the black market. Specifically, the candidates squabbled over who would most aggressively weaponize the military and federal power in an attempt to prevent illicit fentanyl from reaching American shores.
Some of the candidates deployed anecdotes gleaned from the campaign trail of people whose loved ones died of fentanyl overdoses in order to justify increasingly oppressive drug policy. But Gov. Ron DeSantis's example is much more complicated than he let on.
"In Florida, we had an infant, 18 months [old]," DeSantis said. "Parents rented an Airbnb, and apparently the people that had rented it before were using drugs. The infant was crawling, the toddler was crawling on the carpet and ingested fentanyl residue and died. Are we just going to sit here and let this happen, this carnage happen in our country? I am not going to do that." As he has in the past, DeSantis used the story to illustrate the need for tougher drug and immigration policy, up to and including shooting people as they cross the border with Mexico.
A campaign official confirmed to Reason that DeSantis was referring to Enora Lavenir,* the 19-month-old daughter of a French couple vacationing in Wellington, a small Florida town near West Palm Beach. The Lavenirs rented a four-bedroom house through Airbnb, where on August 7, 2021, Enora's mother Lydie Lavenir found her unconscious and foaming at the mouth. Paramedics rushed the girl to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Last year, the Lavenirs filed a wrongful death suit against Airbnb, the property's owners, and the most recent previous renter. The lawsuit has since been amended to add additional defendants including HomeAway, the parent company of Vrbo, another home-rental service through which the prior tenant rented the house. According to the lawsuit, "the medical examiner detected a lethal level of Fentanyl in Enora's blood and determined that her cause of death was acute Fentanyl toxicity. Toxicology readings indicated a quick death, ruling out the possibility that Enora came into contact with Fentanyl anywhere else but in the Airbnb rental."
Contrary to DeSantis's statement at the debate, the lawsuit does not claim that Enora was "crawling on the carpet and ingested fentanyl residue." In fact, the suit does not speculate exactly how Enora came into contact with the drug; it merely alleges that Airbnb and Vrbo have "known for years that drug use is prevalent in [their] properties" and "that drugs, paraphernalia, and residue are frequently left behind in rentals, that there is a substantial risk of them being left behind, and that when they are left behind they pose a fatal risk to future guests, including children and infants."
As to the owners, the suit alleges that the property "had a history of being used as a party house" and that days before the Lavenirs checked in, the previous tenant and/or his guests brought "illicit drugs to the subject premises," which the Lavenirs believe "included, but were not limited to, powder cocaine, powder cocaine laced with Fentanyl, Fentanyl, and/or marijuana."
But according to police reports from the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, "it was unknown how the decedent ingested the fentanyl and the source of the fentanyl" as "there were no signs of any illegal narcotics at the crime scene," either on the premises or in the Lavenirs' toxicology. When interviewed, the previous tenant admitted throwing a party that included the use of marijuana and powder cocaine, but according to the investigator's report, he "does not recall seeing any signs of any material which he would consider to be fentanyl" and had "no explanation as to how fentanyl would have got into the residence."
The medical examiner concluded that Enora ingested the substance that killed her; contrary to sometimes-hysterical press coverage, it is not possible to absorb fentanyl through the skin. And since investigators could find no source for the drugs, it's not accurate for DeSantis to state definitively that she "ingested fentanyl residue" from the carpet.
More to the point, it's entirely inappropriate for DeSantis to use Enora Lavenir's death as a justification for a more aggressive drug policy. After all, prohibition is the reason that fentanyl gets mixed into illicit drugs in the first place. Drug users are not asking for an extremely potent opioid to be mixed into the narcotics they buy; drug traffickers, in the face of severe penalties, shifted to a cheaper alternative of higher potency to cut into the drugs that people do want.
The way to stop the next Enora Lavenir from dying of accidental fentanyl exposure is not by doubling down on prohibition, but by admitting that it's been a failure.
*UPDATE: A campaign official emailed after press time to confirm that DeSantis was referring to the Lavenirs.