The GOP's latest bugaboo? Fentanyl!
The problem is, you can't overdose from simply touching it.
Kevin McCarthy’s new fentanyl talking point demonstrates how hard Republicans are working to scare people into voting for them in November — facts, science, and physiology be damned.
In an effort to make it seem as though President Biden and Democrats have turned a blind eye to dangerous drugs pouring into American communities, McCarthy during recent Fox News appearances has stoked fears over a story out of Bakersfield, California, about a school employee alleged overdosing after he merely touched a fentanyl pill brought to school by a 13-year-old student.
“When he picked the pills out, he OD’d — not because he took the pills, simply because it touched him,” McCarthy told Maria Bartiromo last Sunday. “That is how dangerous this is.”
McCarthy told the same tall tale to Laura Ingraham on Wednesday evening.
But despite what McCarthy would have you believe, the school employee almost certainly did not OD from merely touching a fentanyl pill. I reached out to medical toxicologist Ryan Marino, MD to get his expert explanation.
“Fentanyl powder on the street comes as a solid, which is not going to cross through the skin barrier on its own,” Marino told me. “It’s also not usually in quantities that would be sufficient. It would take a significant amount of time and effort to do that. And so for all intents and purposes, touching fentanyl is not going to have any significant effect.”
In fairness to McCarthy, a number of news articles, including one from the Los Angeles Times, credulously wrote based on an account from law enforcement that earlier this month, Bakersfield police in the process of responding to a report of a student with fentanyl “received a report of a yard supervisor possibly overdosing after coming into contact with the pills.” The yard supervisor was given Narcan and taken to the hospital in stable condition.
But as Marino explained to me, the explanation for this episode likely only indirectly has anything to do with drugs.
“This is speculation, but in these situations, if it happened, it’s really easy to describe what the opioid overdose looked like. A fentanyl overdose looks a certain way — it’s like a drifting off to sleep — and these reports of things like panic and rapid breathing never match,” he said. “And you could also have tested the person for fentanyl, and they never do that.”
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Marino suspects something like the “nocebo” effect is the true explanation.
“When someone has these symptoms and what law enforcement usually describes as an overdose, it’s more consistent with anxiety or a panic attack, or this phenomenon called the ‘nocebo’ effect where you believe so badly that something can harm you that you have physical symptoms,” he said. “So it’s not like this person didn’t have real symptoms, it’s just that they are not at all consistent with fentanyl.”
Other experts back up Marino.
The GOP’s cynical fentanyl fear-mongering
McCarthy, who has also spread fentanyl misinformation on Twitter, is far from alone in his fact-free drug demagoguery. Republicans this year have repeatedly attacked Biden over large seizures of fentanyl crossing the southern border, raising the question of whether they’d prefer the border patrol just let the drugs flow in.
This rhetoric is part of a broader GOP narrative heading into the midterms about how Biden and Democrats are purportedly turning the country into a dangerous hellhole — one Fox News is eager to help them spread.
Meanwhile, the 2024 Republican presidential frontrunner has openly been talking at his rallies of his desire to quickly put drug dealers to death.
Whether this ends up being a winning political message remains to be seen (it didn’t work out so well for Trump in 2020) but one thing is for sure: if Republicans were serious about public policy responses to the very serious problem of synthetic opioid overdoses, they wouldn’t sound so ignorant and bloodthirsty.
“The fentanyl crisis itself was manufactured by poor government policies that demonized heroin and other opioids, and drove people toward creating this more potent synthetic product,” Marino told me. “These policies also lead to increased criminalization for people who just need support and help. And people have actually been charged with the imaginary crime of fentanyl exposure.”
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