News Brief: Fentanyl In Our Halloween Candy and Liberal Messaging Failures of the Overdose Crisis
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled full length episodes when, oh, I don’t know Adam, drug dealers from Mexico are putting drugs in our kids’ Skittles.
Adam: And China, don’t forget.
Nima: Oh right. It’s also the Chinese.
Adam: ‘China.’ The Chinese, the Mexican cartels.
Nima: Yes, the cartels are out to get our kids, and what is happening, we hear from our politicians and the press, is that we now have to look out for brightly colored fentanyl pills that are going to be snuck into our kids’ Halloween candy — for what purpose? I don’t know, getting them addicted and then murdering them.
[Begin Clip Montage]
Woman #1: Federal authorities want you to be aware of so-called rainbow fentanyl pills. The DEA warns the drug targets children because it looks like candy.
Man #1: This is a picture of real fentanyl. These are Sweet Tarts, and if you opened up this little container of Sweet Tarts, it would look about the same.
Man #2: With an estimated 12,000 fentanyl pills disguised as bags of candy and snacks.
Man #3: Parents need to hear with Halloween coming up. It’s about potentially deadly fentanyl pills that look like candy. Drug officials in New York confiscated 15,000 of the rainbow colored pills and many of them were hidden in a Lego box and they’re turning up all over the country.
Woman #2: This morning federal agents with an urgent warning to parents about rainbow fentanyl. Pills, the colors of candy.
Man #4: This is every parent’s worst nightmare as Halloween fast approaches.
Woman #3: This is a five alarm crisis and the Biden administration needs to step up, close our border and actually take this seriously.
[End Clip Montage]
Nima: Basically this moral panic, this mass hysteria, which is now spreading through the media and being boosted obviously by all manner of our elected officials, is something that we wanted to address today. It is the kind of next iteration, although it also harkens back to Halloween candy scares of yesteryear, but kind of the next iteration of this, you know, cops looked at maybe where fentanyl once was and passed out, those kinds of stories, and so who better to have on our show to discuss this hysteria, Adam, then friend of the show Zach Siegel, journalist and researcher and at this point Citations Needed’s own senior drug correspondent. Zach is also the co-writer of Substance, a newsletter about drugs and crime, which is written with journalist Tana Ganeva, also who has been a guest of the show, and you can find Substance at Substack and the URL is tanag.substack.com. Zach, senior drug correspondent to Citations Needed. Welcome back to the show.
Zachary Siegel: [joking] Hey, guys, I’m on the scene at LAX where the security just nabbed a pervert with Halloween candy going through security!
Adam: So, the best part of the story, which we’re not going to get into, I just want to throw it out there, is that allegedly they caught someone with 12,000 pills, which is a lot of pills, at LAX, Los Angeles airport, and then like a throwaway line in the initial sheriff’s press release and then the initial report by ABC was ‘Oh, the suspect got away,’ and it’s like, wait a second, how do you get out of an airport? I mean, LAX is like the most secure place on Earth. The guy just got away?
Nima: I can only imagine this was done by taking a handful of the pills and throwing them behind him as he ran away and then all the cops banana peeled it and fell on their butts and it was hilarious.
Adam: I know that technically TSA doesn’t have the authority to arrest you but I know that there’s like a thousand airport security, Army, military customs agents who are deputized to arrest you so I don’t know how that works. But anyway.
Nima: This is the menace of the cartels, Adam.
Adam: Yeah, so just to set the table a little bit for those listening, there’s been kind of two parallel fentanyl-related Halloween themed panics in the last few months. It’s gotten more acute with this recent Los Angeles airport bust a couple of weeks ago. So there’s two kinds of parallel Halloween themed fentanyl related panics. There’s number one, there’s the rainbow fentanyl that we’ve heard about for a few weeks now, if not a couple months, about rainbow colored fentanyl meant to attract kids that they’re going to hand out on Halloween. And then you had this airport bust where allegedly Whoppers and Skittles packages were being used to put fentanyl in them. Of course, this was not an end user thing. They were not going to hand out the Whopper packages with fentanyl, that would obviously be somewhat unusual, not very effective in terms of poisoning people because you’d be like what is this random pill doing in a Whopper bag? But is in fact, was a sort of device to smuggle them in. So those are kind of the two big ones. This of course is a Vibe story, right? These stories are being pushed out by county sheriff’s departments who are all uniformly anti-Democrat — I think that’s pretty much fair to say — and police unions who vote for Republicans about ten to one, nine to one depending on the election, and Republican media and Republican aligned media and Republican politicians running for Congress. We’ve heard everybody from US House Representative candidate Ronny Jackson to Ken Buck to Congresswoman Debbie Lesko, to Herschel Walker, who told Sean Hannity on his radio show, quote, “Halloween is right around the corner. Right now China, who’s not our friend, is trying to dress fentanyl up to look like candy. So we got to be very vigilant about that.”
Zachary Siegel: Friends don’t do that to other friends.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: Right and so every single news media outlet has covered it, all the Sinclair broadcast stations, KSAN, KTIV, KFVA, KWTX, Yahoo, News9, WGN, WHAS, Eleven, CBS Nightly News, like an official, you know, sort of ostensibly centrist news outlet did this sensationalist report.
Woman: Security check at LAX Airport in Los Angeles led to a disturbing discovery. 12,000 suspected fentanyl pills were found inside what appeared to be bags and boxes of Skittles, Whoppers and Sweet Tarts. The seizure of the deadly drugs prompted officials to warn parents to check their children’s Halloween candy after trick or treating this year.
Adam: CNN did something, Fox News has been running it nonstop. Obviously, this is a vibe story because as we mentioned, there’s kind of two things that dissect here. So I want to get to our guest, Zach, I want you to sort of chime in here. Start off if you would with the sort of second phase of this moral panic, which was the alleged fentanyl bust at LAX kind of seemingly lending credibility to this idea that children are going to get on Halloween night — by the way, if a child dies of an overdose, this episode is not going to age well — that is supposedly being given out to kids, presumably, while they’re transporting these very expensive drugs they forget, I guess, and then give the package to somebody? Start with that and the validity of that claim.
Zachary Siegel: I’ll try my best without having a brain aneurysm. So —
Adam: Okay please, I know it’s hard.
Zachary Siegel: The most recent airport kerfuffle, the drugs happen to be hidden, concealed away in boxes of candy, and I think rewinding back just like a week or two before that, there was a huge media event around fentanyl found in boxes of Legos, which are also fun things that children like. So what’s happening here is that the media or the police or just everybody seemingly has no idea or is just totally incompetent at their jobs, forget the fact that drugs are often smuggled in innocuous things that don’t draw attention, like a box of candy, a box of Legos, or through ports of entry, they are in trucks full of avocados, tractor trailers, hauling lines. This is how drug trafficking works.
Adam: They’re not typically in a package marked drugs is what you’re saying?
Zachary Siegel: Typically not.
Nima: So I should be very careful about guacamole at this point. That’s what I have now learned.
Adam: That is how Trump would do it because he would have emails being like “crime of the day,” but everyone else who has half a brain cell typically masks drugs. That’s the way smuggling works. Right?
Zachary Siegel: Right, and we are talking about street fentanyl here, we’re not talking about lab grade, pharmaceutically manufactured, FDA approved stuff you get from a hospital or a doctor, this is bathtub gin-style fentanyl, it’s made somewhere off in probably a very rural part of Mexico where there’s barrels of chemicals and a big witch’s stew of liquids, and this gets turned into fentanyl, and so to cross the border, it goes through ports of entry, and it’s hidden in, it could be in anything, literally it could be hidden in anything. And so the fact that suddenly the concealment has become an object of doom, basically —
Adam: Titillating headlines, yeah.
Zachary Siegel: Yeah, exactly. And so that’s really that kind of second whole wave that you’re talking about here. But with the LAX thing, what’s remarkable is just how dumb this drug trafficker appears to be just sending pills through a carry on. That’s bonkers because TSA agents, they’re mostly looking for bombs and metal guns, that’s the stuff that triggers that alarm. So to send 12,000 pills through airport security, can you imagine that? Walking through security with a bag of edibles or gummies or something. People get nervous and ditch it, right? This is so brazen to carry 12,000 pills through security, but maybe the guy’s really smart because they got away or this whole thing is fake and who knows what the fuck happened?
Adam: Right. Because this is very much vibes, which is obviously the goal is that this is, what we’re arguing in this episode, and when I’m arguing in an upcoming piece — if it hasn’t come out yet it will soon — is that obviously this is being pushed out by sheriff’s departments who are a hotbed of reaction and pro Trump sentiment. I think it’s fair to say, sheriff’s departments even way more than police departments, which is wild, when you think about it —
Nima: That’s saying a lot.
Adam: Are bastions of Trumpist sort of politics and panic around drugs, because the goal is to sort of, say, Halloween, drugs, October, two weeks before the midterms, week before the midterms, they want to kind of create this general sense of disarray. So the goal is to just put fentanyl and Halloween in the same headline because it’s about vibes. And so just at the risk of self plagiarizing, I don’t want to make this point twice, I’m actually going to read my tweet, because it’s really weird just because —
Zachary Siegel: Do it.
Adam: So I said, “In 2018 when a man was caught smuggling cocaine into Portugal using a fake butt we didn’t issue a warning to everyone who eats ass.” Which is a very vulgar way of saying that, I can’t think of any other time which the device for the smuggling has been presented as the device that’s going to go to some unsuspecting, I’ve never seen that before, right? Like you said, we have avocados, we have toaster ovens, we have coffee beans, we’ve never been like, watch your coffee after watching Beverly Hills Cop 2, watch your coffee that’s going to have cocaine in it.
Nima: Beverly Hills Cop 1. One, my friend.
Adam: Was it one? I’m sorry. I have never, ever seen that happen until this week where it’s that somehow that these drug dealers are going to take what is, I assume, $200,000 worth of fentanyl in some package and just give it to Jimmy.
Nima: Well, there’s also the idea here that drug dealers are going to fake our kids out by dropping expensive drugs into Halloween candy, and then what? Why is that possibly a good business practice? None of this makes fucking sense. It is all based on panic, and to kind of make this even more official, going beyond Sheriff’s Department panic, beyond cop panic, beyond political rhetoric, we saw in a US Drug Enforcement Administration, that’s the DEA, press release on August 30, DEA official Anne Milgram saying this quote, “Rainbow fentanyl — fentanyl pills and powder that come in a variety of bright colors, shapes and sizes — is a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults,” end quote. And so this is basically what was picked up on by everyone. Now Chuck Schumer is insisting that there be something like $300 million dedicated to fighting rainbow fentanyl.
Woman: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is warning about the dangers of rainbow fentanyl. He’s calling for an additional $290 million in funding to help in this drug fight. Senator Schumer says more drug dealers are pushing brightly colored fentanyl to make it more appealing to young teens and children.
Nima: So before we get any further, Zach, I’d love for you to talk to us about the kind of kernel of truth that then is allowed to pop into a full blown mass panic, the kind of, you know, mass panic pipeline. So what’s the real risk about fentanyl? It’s a high potency opioid, it is definitely responsible for many, many deaths, but talk to us about how that is then twisted and turned into this panic again and again, from everything from cops touching a pill to what we’re now seeing in the drug traffickers are out to get your suburban kids addicted to drugs.
Zachary Siegel: Right. So because this is like a Halloween special, we’ll go with the kind of urban legend theory here because this is a spooky story kind of a thing. It’s a vibe, like Adam is saying. And so in order for an urban legend, or a scary story, to have any pull in the real world, there has to be some actual horror happening in reality, to draw us, to pull us in, to make us believe it, and the horror here in real life is that more than 100,000 people in the last year have died from drug overdoses, and these deaths are totally preventable. These are needless, tragic deaths and they don’t need to be happening. Bad drug policy is no doubt producing so much of this mortality, and all of that is being totally obscured by the rainbow fentanyl panic and the Halloween candy scare stories and also with the police officers touching trace amounts of fentanyl and passing out. The real harm in all these stories is completely obscured, hidden, unspoken, unnamed, and that’s why this stuff matters, and that’s why I spend time going batshit crazy trying to issue correctives and talk about it, because fentanyl is actually a serious crisis right now, and on the street especially, the drug market, in various places, is totally contaminated if you’re trying to use cocaine, trying to take a bump at a bar, that could very well just fucking end it for you, and that is new and scary and isn’t really being metabolized or messaged around in any way. And so, the DEA, especially here, they could be issuing all kinds of pertinent public health information, they could be issuing very useful harm reduction messaging to the public, telling people to use fentanyl test strips, telling people where to get naloxone, it’s the opioid overdose antidote, it is how overdoses specifically from opioids get reversed. They reverse respiratory depression, naloxone knocks the opioid off of your receptor allowing you to breathe again. So all of this information is not being communicated whatsoever, and instead we’re getting the cartels want to kill your children, there is a plot to poison the youth of America, and what do we need? A more militarized drug war, we need the sheriff’s to audit your child’s candy this Halloween. We’re getting totally batshit useless directives.
Nima: It does kind of multiple things. It promotes law enforcement solutions as well as anti immigrant sentiment. So all of this does kind of a lot of heavy lifting.
Zachary Siegel: They call that a twofer.
Adam: Yeah, because, you know, that to me seems to be the thing that’s frustrating, because, you know, anytime you push back on these stories, you always get a lot of people say, ‘Oh, well, you know, fentanyl is a real threat, you don’t care about the real threat,’ and and I think we’ve used this analogy before, but it’s like as if it is the 18th century and someone is suffering, mental illness or a really bad fever, and I’m like, well, I don’t think the leeches are working, and they’re like, ‘Oh, you don’t want to fix the fever, or you don’t want to think, like you want them to die?’ And it’s like, no, your solution has absolutely no basis in reality, of course, I think a lot of them know that. I think they know it’s cynical bullshit. This is a public health issue that police departments lead the messaging on, they lead the charge on, they lead the social policy on. And so by definition, all their solutions are going to involve more arrests, more militarization, more raids, more border, sitting in front of a table with a big pile of pills saying we caught another baddie to get it off the streets. There’s, you know, people keep talking about after the drug war, post drug war, the drug war is still here, it’s the same shit. Again, we’ll have some more enlightened progressive branding around the margins. But fundamentally, you know, nothing really as much changed, especially when it comes to these quote-unquote “hard drugs.” And so I want to sort of back up here a bit and say, well, okay, again, because this is all about vibes and funding the police and dinging the Democrats before the midterms, I think that’s really obvious. This has absolutely nothing to do with trying to educate people about the threats of fentanyl. So if Zachary Siegel, tomorrow, was the head of the US policy for drug response, or something similar, obviously, pumping out these silly stories would not be your approach, what would be your approach? What would be kind of like a 1, 2, 3 step education policy you would have that you would try to disseminate to the media, again, assuming you lived in an alternate universe where people had an intelligent public health approach to these things, rather than just scare the shit out of fucking white women voters in the suburbs, which is clearly what they’re doing here, but what would you say the kind of top three messaging outputs would be for you?
Zachary Siegel: Right. I love the magic wand policy questions. So absolutely, the number one thing that everyone should know about is that whether you’re an entrenched IV drug user on the street, or a weekend warrior, or a finance bro doing bumps at the bar, the drugs out there are absolutely contaminated and baseline everyone has to know that, and what that does, it opens up the terrain for so many possibilities and solutions, and namely, we are just very much trapped in these prohibition markets, which it’s a good word for it because it doesn’t prohibit anything. Prohibition is not prohibiting the use of fentanyl. It’s not prohibiting the illicit manufacture, trafficking and retail level sales of this drug, and so it’s almost like American drug policy right now is perfectly calibrated to be producing the worst of all possible worlds, which is not only can you not, if you’re a drug user, like you have to navigate this disastrous market, but you know, everyday people too, they’re at major risk of just dying, and so like I want to harp on the DEA’s messaging here, which is, they recently unleashed their campaign called One Pill Can Kill. That’s their big kind of fentanyl-era slogan, and there’s been a big PR push on their part, and it’s a new riff on an old trope that has been false for a very long time, which is one hit and you’re hooked. Now it’s one hit and you’re dead, and technically, their message is true in some instances, but it’s almost the message that they’ve been longing for, it’s the message they want, and part of what their practices do in terms of drug enforcement is create dangerous drug markets. That’s kind of the outcome that they’re always gunning for. Every time, and this happens at a very, very micro level, every time the cops raid a trap house or arrest a local supplier, that creates volatility in that local market, and so that disruption is actually the cause of so many overdoses. There’s so many fascinating interviews, ethnographic qualitative interviews out there from drug users who say, ‘After my dealer got arrested, I had to go find someone else, and so that’s when I found their supply, and that’s when I overdosed,’ or something. So it’s like, they’re saying one pill can kill, and how bad and awful this is, while their exact policy avenue that they’ve been pursuing for decades, led us right to that.
Adam: Right. Because it seems like, again, this is something that’s touched so many people’s lives, everybody knows, themselves personally, or knows someone who knows someone who’s had a fentanyl issue, either that’s been fatal, quite frankly, I think it’s fair to say, I mean, this has affected so many people. I mean, I just anecdotally, just myself, people, relatives, friends of friends, like I’ve seen it happen. So you have this thing that’s killing people, there doesn’t really seem to be a coherent public health response by Democrats in the White House. Not to sort of, I want to be careful not to blame them too much, because I do think Republicans will make hay of this bullshit no matter what, I mean, they’re deeply bottom of the well, fucking cynical, right?
Zachary Siegel: It’s very beyond both parties at this point.
Adam: Yeah. Because obviously, the Democrats are still doing the war on drugs, right? That’s their response to this, and with some modest public health discourse around the margins, again, I don’t think they would demagogue it as much in such a cynical fashion in terms of right before the midterm, but there really doesn’t seem to be anyone kind of dealing with it, and I think that in the absence of people looking like they’re fixing this problem, everyone’s going to just default to the police posture, and so this keeps getting worse and worse every year, as you note in your work, the deaths are either remaining the same or increasing. No one really seems to have a solution other than to sort of yell about China or yell about One Pill Can Kill, and I think that that’s kind of why we see this vibe stuff work because people, again, it feels like they’re doing something, it feels like, well, the cops are kind of being proactive. They’re trying to do something about it.
Nima: And they’re trying to protect, right, this is all about protection.
Adam: Yeah, and all that matters in politics is looking like your capital “D,” capital “S” is Doing Something, and the only one seemingly doing something right now are these far right sheriff’s departments, and drug hawks, and I think that, again, like you said, what is the solution? So you listed a couple of things. I want to ask you a bit about the other solutions, which you touched on earlier, because I think that’s actually a key point here about actual harm reduction techniques. I think that when you bring about harm reduction, people get a little queasy, because it seems like, oh, you know what, doing drugs that you’ve never seen before is no big deal, just carry some stuff on you. And obviously, we’re not going to say just say no, but there has to be some middle ground versus like, okay, actually, one pill can kill you, but instead of just being scared shitless or assuming that it’s a moral failing on the part of the average drug user, that you sort of meet them where they are, and you say, ‘Well, here’s the steps you can do to help yourself.’ So not to pivot too much into fucking after school special and progressive PSA here but for those who are listening who are curious what they can do or do have loved ones who are drug users, what would be steps they can take beyond just the kind of glib mocking of dipshit cops.
Zachary Siegel: Yeah, this is the sad part about the state of affairs in the US where the options for people are actually quite limited, very narrow, and it’s sort of like with COVID, it’s all on you, you the consumer. You navigate this fucking hell world. Okay.
Adam: But assuming that we do live in a hell hole where everyone has to look after themselves what would you suggest?
Nima: Granting that reality?
Zachary Siegel: Right.
Adam: Granting reality. Yeah. Because you’re right obviously there would be policy prescriptions. But assuming we live in hell, what is the solution here?
Zachary Siegel: It’s hard to speak about it in a broad brush, because this gets back to the DEA’s failure, which is they have a major communications misfire. So, there has to be a message tailored to the audience in a very specific way that’s legible to them. Telling a ten year long heroin user that there’s fentanyl in their candy is not a message that they give a shit about and they’ll laugh it off, and so part of what I think is totally twisting everything is there’s a total audience mismatch, and so I’ll get to some specific things in a second here, like with the DEA and the whole rainbow fentanyl, and fentanyl candy, it’s like, what I would love to see in their press releases is we analyzed the chemical composition of this seizure and these rainbow fentanyl pills, they are X percent purity, they are cut with Y and Z other chemicals and if you are encountering this, use this information and hopefully this can shape user behavior if they actually know what the fuck it is they’re doing, and that’s the main crux of this whole problem that overdose is a mismatch between dose and tolerance, people are taking too much of something that they cannot tolerate, because they don’t know what the dose is, and so in terms of messaging, and drug education, we’re just so light years behind from actually having a reality-based messaging here, and I think with the way things are right now, teenagers especially, where there’s pharmaceutical pills being traded around or your friend gave you an Adderall or you bought a Xanax off some guy, it’s like, I don’t think a lot of the younger people really know that unless they saw the pill bottle that this came from, they really should be testing it, which is a lot of work for a teenager who wants to use drugs, by the way, that’s probably unlikely.
Adam: So let’s talk about testing because you’ve talked about that. What would a testing regime, again, with an understanding this is totally a libertarian hellscape, everyone’s on their own, what would a kind of testing system look like? Obviously, some places provide that vast, majority don’t. Can you talk about that real quick? I’m sort of curious what testing would look like because that seems to be a point where you can actually kind of make an intervention.
Zachary Siegel: It would be great if there was actually some infrastructure for this that had the right technology, and people felt comfortable bringing their substances to it to get a readout, and this happens at raves all the time, people buy pills, and they go over to the Dance Safe tent, and Dance Safe is a wonderful harm reduction organization, and they will do a reagent test, they’ll test your pill and they’ll tell you, ‘You know what, this is safe. Enjoy.’ Or they’ll tell you, ‘You know what this is bunk or this is actually looking really funky, be careful, don’t take this.’ That kind of thing is all premised on the fact that you, a drug user, or not a piece of shit because you want to do this, and so there’s just so many hang ups before we can even get to a place where drug checking and testing is viable, and the best we could do in the Randian hellscape is you order fentanyl test strips online or if you’re in a more metropolitan area, there is for sure a harm reduction organization that distributes fentanyl test strips, and these give you a simple yes/no is fentanyl present in the substance and it’s becoming more of a thing where bars are kind of conscious of this and they’ll have Naloxone and test strips in bathrooms and stuff like that, the more that’s a normal thing, even though it portends and signals something really dire and scary and fucked up, but the more that’s normal, the more people are kind of aware of, okay, you know, the drugs are different now.
Nima: Well, but also it’s a difference in the way we understand care as opposed to shame, which kind of gets me to this next point, which is, you mentioned, this has to do with dose and tolerance, right? But that’s not how we hear about this. That’s not how drugs are in American media or pop culture. It’s hysteria and temperance. I mean, and so the idea that what we’re seeing here whether it’s the, you know, rainbow fentanyl or other kinds of hysteria here, we really see this as coordinated campaigns, I mean, you brought up the kind of new tagline One Pill Can Kill, and I mean, this was basically put out as a PR piece hidden as a Yahoo News article. So Jayla Whitfield Anderson published this piece on September 29th of this year, 2022, with the headline, “‘One pill can kill’: Drug cartels use rainbow-colored fentanyl to attract children” and has a couple very sad anecdotes about young teenagers who took pills and died. It then goes into what the DEA has said, it goes into all this stuff, right? One Pill Can Kill. And then you see this kind of proliferate, not only in media, but also in political speech. You have the official GOP party Twitter account putting out a video from Rhonda McDaniel, the Republican chairperson, the tweet tech says, “Rainbow fentanyl is finding its way across Biden’s open border and into schools across the United States. The GOP is sounding an alarm.” Ronny Jackson, a US House candidate from Texas with this tweet, quote, “Cartels are disguising fentanyl as CANDY. To ERADICATE the next generation of American children!! This is happening RIGHT NOW at our border and Biden is not only silent, he’s HELPING!” Representative Ken Buck with this on October 20th, quote, “Drug cartels are smuggling fentanyl disguised as rainbow colored candy across our overwhelmed southern border. Heading into the holiday season Americans should take extra precautions to stay safe.” Congresswoman Debbie Lesko had a similar tweet, quote, “12,000 fentanyl pills were found packaged in candy boxes. As Halloween approaches parents should remain vigilant and double check their kids’ candy to help keep them safe from this deadly drug,” end quote.
Now, what we are seeing here, and what I want to ask you about Zach, is this idea that the only way American young people, kids and young people — kids, I’m not saying like elementary school trick or treaters but let’s say, you know, younger teens and then you know young adults — that the only way that our precious youth would ever get involved in drugs is if they are tricked by drug dealers. The idea that these are devious either foreigners or baddies in our urban neighborhoods, not our safe suburban spaces of course, ever, that are smuggling this stuff in to trick our kids, which then completely and conveniently avoids the idea that maybe people want to do drugs, and that that is something that is itself its own reality, and that protection is maybe different, safety, when it comes to drug use is different than pure kind of prohibition, which obviously has everything to do with then drug enforcement policies, law enforcement policies. So kind of, can you talk to us about this idea, this kind of puritanical view of like, were it not for the evil doers who are putting drugs into our kids’ candy and unknowingly killing them with one single pill, were it not for that we would have this city on a hill utopia, because obviously our kids would not want to do drugs.
Zachary Siegel: Yeah, this actually brings us right back to the urban legend framing here, which I think is quite appropriate. Sociologists study this stuff, and urban legends in particular, they provide people with an alternate story to understand reality, and respond to reality, and so in order for an urban legend like this to kind of fester, this gets back to like the kernel of truth here in all of this, there has to be something horrific and terrible in the real world going on, and basically what I think is happening here, on kind of the collective hysteria level and the levels of mass psychology, is that the truth of the matter that people are dying en masse from fentanyl overdoses is undigestible, and the only way that people can kind of wrap their heads around this is all these teenagers who took a pill got tricked, or something, or they unknowingly, unsuspectingly got dosed by an evil doer. Drug users are criminalized and marginalized and scapegoated and widely loathed as a group of people, and, of course, people are seeking an alternative story to explain it, because the reality that we’ve created is so fucked.
Nima: Because if it’s your kid, your kid isn’t evil. So you have to figure out a way to square that story.
Zachary Siegel: Exactly.
Adam: The guy on the corner with a trench coat story has always been a convenient pandering to people because it’s an iteration of Stranger Danger. Whereas of course, usually, almost always, it’s peer influence, or it’s other issues, psychological issues, emotional issues, etcetera. Which I think is kind of the thing that, it’s just amazing how we’d have no discussion of this, and I know that there are state lawmakers and people even in some school education programs that are a little more nuanced these days, I don’t think it’s quite the same thing as we had when we had DARE, although, DARE is back back, as you note, we still have this kind of simplistic carceral, war on drugs narrative, and we’re getting the same kind of output from it, which is to say, we are funding a lot of cops and putting a lot of people in prison, but the actual rates of death don’t really seem to be changing much, if not going up, and so, you know, that’s what makes this whole thing so sad, and it’s kind of what makes J.D. Vance’s schtick so sad, where he’s like, talking about China pushing opioids and fentanyl, meanwhile, the think tank he works for, American Enterprise Institute, took $3 million from the Sackler family.
Nima: Yeah, exactly.
Zachary Siegel: Yeah. So J.D. Vance on the campaign trail said that Joe Biden’s drug policy is specifically trying to kill MAGA voters.
Zachary Siegel: And it’s just like, holy shit, dude.
Adam: I mean, that’s just white genocide shit, and the reason why that appeal becomes attractive to a certain set of people is because a lot of people are actually dying. There’s an underlying reality to it.
Zachary Siegel: And they need an explanation. They need something.
Adam: Yeah, they need it to be a foreign boogeyman, they need it to be cartels, whatever, for awhile they even tried to, you know, maybe give it a bit of a corporate face but that didn’t really stick, so now we’re back to the old Chinese Sicario thing. And it’s sad, because people are so desperate, and it’s like, why would we do an episode like this, you know, and liberals can dunk on all this sort of right-wing panic, and I think it’s important to do that, because I do think it’s important for people understand that this stuff is cynical bullshit. But then the question becomes, well, yeah, if Republicans are exploiting this issue, then what are Democrats offering other than basically a variation of the same thing, but without the kind of pure cynicism? Right?
Zachary Siegel: Yeah.
Nima: Chuck Schumer wants to give $300 million to the same kind of programs that we’ve been funding the whole time.
Adam: We don’t have anyone really pushing for robust public health harm reduction effort, and of course, from the White House, as we talked about, well, you know, nine months ago, when they did have a brief moment of trying to do harm reduction, they got demagogued every night on Fox News with the whole crack pipe thing. So any kind of science-based, evidence-based, safety-based humanists approach to this issue, it just doesn’t go anywhere, either due to venality or cowardice and it’s sad to watch, you know, it’s like this is a sad fucking topic. You know, we can dunk on these asshole sheriffs all day because they’re obviously craven assholes trying to put their finger on the scales of the midterm elections. But it just seems so hopeless, you know?
Zachary Siegel: It’s majorly a bitter pill for me to swallow, because for probably five years straight, all I’ve done for a living is report on public health approaches to substance use, to kind of unraveling the theory, philosophy and practice of harm reduction, of telling stories about international, global countries that do things like prescription diacetylmorphine, which is heroin safe supply, the idea that there needs to be an off ramp for people out of the kind of toxic contaminated illicit drug supply, and that that’s called medicine. We have the capability to help people, and it’s not being done, which gets back to the saddest fact of all is that these deaths are so preventable, eminently preventable, and the fact that they’re not being prevented and so little is done to prevent it that I’m honestly like, I get why there’s this kind of horrific imaginary coursing through the American mind about open borders and reverse opium war with China and Joe Biden’s drug policy and anonymous sadists trying to kill your children. This is the stuff that the brutal reality is producing because I think it is such a bitter pill to swallow if we just take reality as it is and see it for what it is, which is a massive fucking failure and a huge disaster.
Nima: Right, because we always need the external boogeyman. That’s how we justify this to ourselves because then it’s not our actual problem, and so instead you get, it’s drug traffickers trying to kill your kids, has to do with where the blame falls for either addiction stories in our media, in our society, in our communities and neighborhoods, all the way up to political posturing, pro police messaging, all of this is kind of wrapped up into this lovely Halloween treat of scare stories and hysteria.
And so Zach, just thank you so much for joining us on this News Brief to unpack this a bit. Of course, we’ve been speaking with friend of the show Zach Siegel, journalist and researcher, and now I can safely say Citations Needed senior drug correspondent. Also, the co-writer of the newsletter Substance, which is done in partnership with journalist Tana Ganeva, and you can find Substance at TanaG.substack.com. Zach, thank you as always for joining us on Citations Needed.
Zachary Siegel: Thank you both guys. Happy Halloween. Be safe out there.
Nima: That will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. We are 100 percent listener funded so all your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated. But that will do it for this News Brief. We will be back soon with another full length episode of Citations Needed. Thank you for listening everyone.
Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Friday, October 28, 2022.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.