Some police are calling for the state legislature to move up the opening of cannabis dispensaries to mid-2022 after a spate of overdoses involving marijuana laced with fentanyl.
The overdoses, which required the use of naloxone, a drug that reverses an opioid overdose, prompted the state Department of Public Health to issue a warning of marijuana use Wednesday.
“Our biggest fear is that this is going to become a trend,” said Plymouth police Capt. Ed Benecchi whose department dealt with a confirmed overdose of a person who had ingested marijuana laced with fentanyl. “The dispensaries need to be opened as soon as possible to protect the public.”
The state’s Connecticut Overdose Response Strategy Team “strongly advised all public health, harm reduction and others working with clients who use marijuana to educate them about the possible dangers of marijuana with fentanyl,” the warning said. “In addition, they should assist their clients with obtaining the proper precautions if they will be using marijuana.”
There have been 39 incidents since July where people overdosed and needed naloxone to be revived after reporting that they had smoked marijuana, DPH officials said.
In one case in early October, Plymouth police responded to a report of an apparent overdose and found a person who needed Narcan, a brand-name naloxone drug, Benecchi said.
The person said they had used marijuana and provided responding officers with a sample that was sent to the state forensic lab for testing, Benecchi said. There was no evidence at the home of opioid use, he said.
The lab found that the marijuana contained fentanyl, the DPH said. Fentanyl is an opioid that is 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin that has been driving fatal accidental drug overdoses in increasing numbers in the past five years. The case is still being investigated, Benecchi said.
Watertown police reported a death from marijuana laced with fentanyl but that hasn’t been confirmed, according to Susan Logan, a supervising epidemiologist with the DPH. In all of the other cases, the person overdosing was revived by naloxone, Logan said.
The DPH and the overdose response strategy team are working with other agencies and providers to address prevention and treatment while cautioning people that any street drug could be laced with fentanyl, Logan said.
How many of the 39 overdoses were actually tied to fentanyl laced marijuana is hard to determine, Benecchi said, since others will often hide evidence of opioid use before police and first responders arrive. “There is a stigma attached to opioid addiction and some people won’t admit they have been using,” Benecchi said.
His department had heard about other cases involving marijuana laced with fentanyl but “to actually get a sample, that was shocking that this is happening,” Benecchi said.
He is calling for state legislators to move up the planned opening of state licensed cannabis dispensaries throughout the state from the end of 2022 to six months earlier to prevent future overdoses.
The law signed by Gov. Ned Lamont in June regulates the retail sale of marijuana to adults and requires the dispensaries to be licensed while outlining standards for the cannabis items that will be sold at the locations.
The law also sets up more funding for substance abuse programs and training for police in how to recognize driving impairment caused by marijuana use.
While he understands the potential public health threat posed by marijuana sold on the streets, Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, doesn’t see how the deadline for the opening of the dispensaries can be moved up.
“I don’t think it’s as simple as let’s open up the dispensaries,” Winfield said. “There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done and we need to be doing it in the right way. We wouldn’t be looking at three weeks after the session starts next year being able to get this done.”
“The concerns of the Plymouth Police reinforce Governor Lamont’s reasoning for enacting this new law,” said a spokesman for Lamont. “It is his priority to ensure that its implementation, which is already on an aggressive schedule, is accomplished with a safe, responsible, and equitable process in place and is not rushed in a way that causes unintended consequences.”
Accidental fatal overdoses have increased markedly in recent years with the bulk of the deaths now attributed to fentanyl, according to DPH officials. The state, and the country, has also seen an increase in overdose deaths during the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2020, 1,369 people died of an accidental drug overdose in Connecticut, compared to 1,196 in 2020 and 728 in 2015. As of Nov. 15, there were 1,149 confirmed fatal drug overdoses in the state, according to the DPH. In 2019, 2020 and 2021, more than 80% of the deaths involved fentanyl, DPH figures said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this week that drug overdoses topped 100,000 for the 12 month period ending in April. The figure is a 28% increase over the same time frame the year, the CDC said.
Officials with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services have been trying to alert the public for months to the dangers of fentanyl and fentanyl-laced drugs sold on the streets, said agency spokeswoman Mary Kate Mason.
“We need to make sure people understand and are aware that fentanyl can be present in any street drug,” Mason said. “It can be in pill form, it could be in cocaine, it can be in anything.”
The agency continually posts information on fentanyl on its “Live Loud” Facebook page and website, Mason said. DHMAS has also received word that federal funding can be used to purchase fentanyl test strips that can be distributed to the public to allow people to test the drugs they have purchased on the streets. That program is in the works and will be ramping up in the coming months, she said.
In the meantime, people should not be using street drugs alone and should have naloxone on hand at all times, she said. “When they are ready for treatment, they can call our access line,” Mason said.
Anyone seeking help with a substance abuse disorder can call 211 or the DMHAS access line at 1-800-563-4086.