The recognition that people who sell drugs can play a crucial role in reducing the harms caused by drug criminalization is not limited to reformers, syringe service workers and researchers. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is also aware—although the evidence of this comes from a leaked intelligence report, rather than any public FBI acknowledgment.
In an April 9, 2019 “Situational Information Report” found on a hacked server sharing intelligence with North Texas law enforcement—among the documents published by the transparency collective Distributed Denial of Secrets—the FBI’s Denver Division recorded that drug sellers were practicing common harm reduction measures amid the arrival of a fentanyl-adulterated supply, dubbed “Sleepy Dope,” to Pueblo, Colorado. The city has a population a little over 100,000, almost half of whom are Latinx.Sleepy Dope Leaked FBI Report
Before selling their product, “narcotics dealers,” as the report pejoratively described them, checked it with fentanyl test strips they acquired through their participation in local syringe service programs (SSP), according to an unnamed source. The report noted, “[M]any of their customers complain when fentanyl is present in the methamphetamine they purchase.”
The sellers were also directly providing their clients with the fentanyl test strips, as well as syringes from the SSP, albeit for a price. “Users are using the test strips to ensure there is not fentanyl in the methamphetamine they consume,” stated the report. A growing body of research on user-practiced testing affirms its legitimacy as a technique for empowering bodily autonomy.
Embedded within its recognition of drug sellers’ harm reduction practice, the FBI still made a speculative “comment,” presumably distinct from the information provided by its source, that perpetuates the racist stereotype that sellers don’t care about their clients’ wellbeing. In light of meth being “considerably less expensive than heroin in Pueblo,” the report speculated, “dealers may be mixing methamphetamine with fentanyl in an attempt to increase the heroin user base in Pueblo by addicting methamphetamine users to opioids through fentanyl.”
Public health researchers have different explanations. For Jon E. Zibbell, an analyst at nonprofit research institute RTI Interational, the depressant could find its way into the stimulant somewhere along the supply chain when drugs are packaged without first “cleaning off the ‘contaminated’ surfaces.” Or, as he suggests, sellers could be trying to create a unique product. In this case, that seemed to be achieved, given the name “Sleepy Dope.”
Others note that adulterants in general, like caffeine, add bulk. But the lack of clarity on motives for specific instances of adulteration is inherent to an unregulated supply—a problem that advocates say would be fixed with safe supply policies.
The stakes of fentanyl-adulterated meth are high for people who use drugs, especially those who don’t regularly use opioids, and thus have a low tolerance or are not even aware of the opioid’s presence in their bag. Colorado saw a record number of drug-related deaths in 2019—1,062, reportedly driven by fentanyl and meth. As the COVID-19 crisis compounds the harms of a criminalized unregulated supply, the 2020 numbers are only going up.
Screen capture of the Situational Information Report