Over the course of my 28 years in prison, I’ve known a lot of people who sold drugs. I sold meth for about 20 years altogether, both inside and outside prison. Like with any other job, drug-selling is generally something people do with the intention of making money. This is the main reason people who sell cocaine aren’t putting fentanyl in their supply on purpose.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the media portray “fentanyl-laced” cocaine as the result of transnational trafficking organizations just putting fentanyl in all state-banned drugs indiscriminately. This is supposedly in order to get customers addicted more quickly, despite the fact that not all people are prone to becoming addicted to the same things.
While there is sometimes fentanyl in cocaine, it’s something that happens neither intentionally nor on a mass scale. It’s a localized supply chain error—dangerous for the individual buyers affected, but not a widespread public health threat.
Per a mid-level member of a prominent trafficking organization, there’s no top-down directive to add fentanyl to cocaine—which doesn’t stop it from happening by accident.
Per a mid-level member of a prominent trafficking organization, who supplied cocaine along the I-5 corridor that spans Los Angeles to Bellingham, Washington, there’s no top-down directive to add fentanyl to that supply. He explained to me that there’s no financial reason to do so—which doesn’t stop it from happening by accident.
Fentanyl sold on the West Coast these days has been pressed into pills, but before that it’s powder sold by the kilogram. I knew someone who in 2022 bought 1 kg of fentanyl by accident, because it was one bag among several that were all supposed to be cocaine; someone had just grabbed the wrong one.
There are two ways fentanyl is most likely to find its way into the cocaine supply. The first is cross-contamination from distributors using the same surface or same bag, before the product reaches the customer. The second is selling a bag of fentanyl to a cocaine buyer simply because a bag of white-ish powder can be easy to mistake for a different bag of white-ish powder.
Both can happen at the mid- or low-level of the supply chain, just at different scales. Fentanyl and cocaine that originate outside the United States are often transported on the same cargo ships by the same people, and it’s also not uncommon for local sellers to sell both substances, too.
Powder fentanyl, which can look similar to powder cocaine
The DEA has stated that fentanyl is sometimes added to cocaine “purposefully to increase the [cocaine’s] potency or profitability (and customer base).” But this doesn’t make sense when you think about the nature of each substance and the demographics of the people who buy them.
From a business perspective, there’s incentive to cut fentanyl into other opioids like heroin or counterfeit Oxycontin, or other downers like Xanax. There’s incentive for fentanyl itself to be cut with xylazine, which is also a downer. The intention is to produce a knockoff that costs less money to make, but is still viable enough to sell. Cocaine that makes people fall asleep doesn’t make for repeat customers, and especially not if it kills them first.
Cocaine being an upper and fentanyl being a downer doesn’t mean the two are incompatible. People intentionally combine them into speedballs all the time in order to feel the effects simultaneously, for a couple of minutes until the cocaine wears off. But mixing your own speedball from a familiar supply is what allows you to control the ratio; if sellers mixed the substances ahead of time, the product wouldn’t fit everyone’s tolerance.
One factor that creates fear around fentanyl-adulterated cocaine is that stimulant-involved death data are gravely mischaracterized. Another is that even though deaths from fentanyl sold as cocaine aren’t everyday occurrences, when they do happen they tend to make the news. By weight, cocaine is significantly more expensive than fentanyl, and its customer base is more affluent.
If a chocolate product were found to contain undeclared peanuts due to an error made back at the processing plant, the Food and Drug Administration wouldn’t announce that the country’s chocolate supply was contaminated. It would issue an allergy alert to the affected regions, and compel the manufacturer to recall the product. Of course, this is only possible because the product is regulated.
Top photograph via New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene. Inset photographs via Kastalia Medrano.