State eyeing threat of pot laced with fentanyl

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  • Ted Gatsas
    American politician
  • Chris Sununu
    82nd Governor of New Hampshire

Nov. 26—CONCORD — The state Executive Council will consider recommending the Legislature stiffen criminal penalties for drug dealers who are selling marijuana laced with fentanyl.

Councilor Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester, said reports of drug overdoses linked to fentanyl-laced pot in the U.S. are on the rise, and the state needs to have a response.

"I've gotten a lot of calls from people asking what is the state doing about the latest overdose problem we are having right now," said Gatsas, a former Manchester mayor.

"This is a really disturbing problem because young people think they are just taking marijuana to get high and then they get hooked on this hard stuff."

Gov. Chris Sununu said the state will host a breakfast meeting for the councilors in the coming weeks to brief them on the efforts to attack the latest wave of overdose cases.

Drug enforcement officials are warning of an increasing number of pills being sold as Adderall, a drug to treat attention deficit disorder, which are then filled with fentanyl or methamphetamine, Sununu said.

"It's very scary. This is yet another way to hide and a way to get kids hooked without them having a clue," Sununu said.

Conn. claims first confirmed fatality

Police in Brattleboro, Vt., a week ago said fentanyl-laced marijuana led to an overdose that required several doses of Naloxone to revive the patient. The patient told police he had not taken any opioids and only smoked marijuana.

The previous week, state officials said lab testing confirmed in Plymouth, Conn., what officials believe may be the first such fatality in the nation of marijuana that had fentanyl in it. Since last July, officials there reported 39 drug overdoses in which the residents said they only used marijuana.

Through September, the number of drug overdose deaths in New Hampshire were 201; at the same time in 2020, the total deaths from drug overdoses was 236.

The state's drug monitoring initiative lists all deaths associated with fentanyl and any other substance in 2021.

These include deaths linked to fentanyl and many substances including Methadone, used to treat heroin addiction, and Alprazolam, a medication used to treat anxiety. Marijuana is not listed as linked to any overdose death here.

Matt Simon is former legislative analyst and New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project who lobbied for legalizing cannabis.

"I'm somewhat skeptical about these reports. It's hard to understand why any dealer would want to add fentanyl, which is somewhat expensive and very deadly, to cannabis," Simon said.

"I've heard quite a few rumors of fentanyl-laced cannabis in recent years, and this is the first time I've heard of any actual evidence being presented, so I think there's good reason to question this narrative and consider other possible explanations."

Simon is director of public and government relations with Prime Alternative Treatment Centers of NH, one of the vendors for New Hampshire residents to receive therapeutic cannabis if they suffer from medically-eligible conditions.

"I do think this situation illustrates the importance of regulated cannabis markets. Cannabis from unregulated sources is frequently contaminated with mold, pesticides, or heavy metals, and in some cases it may contain other dangerous substances — perhaps even fentanyl," Simon added.

State planning PR push

Katja Fox, director of behavioral health in the Department of Health and Human Services, said the state will begin an eight-week media awareness campaign to redouble the state's drug fighting efforts.

"To say we have a handle on it, l wouldn't declare that to be the case," Fox said. "This is something very concerning and something we collectively need to address."

The campaign will coincide with an expansion of the state's Doorways Program for those battling addiction.

The state is creating mobile crisis teams which as of Jan. 1 will provide 24/7 coverage at all doorway locations across the state.

Manchester and Nashua have had round-the-clock support since officials in both cities closed their Safe Stations and opened doorway programs affiliated with local hospitals.

In the meantime, anyone needing assistance across the state at any time can call 211, Fox said.

"This is going to be a very significant development once we have that support statewide," she added.

Sununu said the state needs to remain vigilant and address the latest threats.

"The amount of money we are spending on prevention, treatment and recovery is literally five times more we have ever done before," Sununu said.

"It remains a huge discussion and a very important one as well."

Sununu: Parents need to take it more seriously

Councilor Janet Stevens, R-Rye, noted New Hampshire has been ranked in the top 10 of states with youths who have tried marijuana.

Sununu, 47, said the state needs to do more to educate parents about the dangers of teens starting to smoke marijuana and that the drug sold on the black market can be very potent.

"The biggest challenge of messaging is the parents, it is not sinking through to them" the seriousness of the issue, Sununu said.

"It's my generation's fault, frankly. They don't understand the marijuana of 10 to 15 years ago is nothing like it is today."

The New Hampshire Legislature will again in 2022 consider legislation to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

A House committee is recommending the House of Representatives kill two related measures left over from 2021; other lawmakers are working on their own new plans.

Gatsas said he doesn't think legalization is the answer.

"I don't see that helping us; we've got to look at treating these deaths as they are like murder and punish people accordingly," Gatsas added.

Simon said it's a felony to sell recreational marijuana, and the state already has enhanced penalties on the books for causing other drug overdose deaths.

"That seems like an awfully roundabout way of protecting consumers," Simon said.

klandrigan@unionleader.com

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