Advocates worry that ‘fentanyl hysteria’ will further criminalize people who use drugs

Bags of heroin, some laced with fentanyl, are displayed before a press conference by the office of the New York Attorney General in 2016. | Drew Angerer, Getty Images

Drug panics are nothing new. In recent years, non-pharmaceutical fentanyl has become the newest bogeyman. Media reports stoke fears about “rainbow fentanyl” ahead of Halloween trick-or-treating and detail harrowing yet unfounded accounts of police officers “overdosing” after minor contact with unknown powders. 

“It really reminds me of 2014 with bath salts and the way that things were presented, like, ‘Do not approach the individual. They are going to be psychotic,’” said Zoe Brokos, director of operations for the Church of Safe Injection in Lewiston. “People put tons of time and energy and resources into bath salts and then they just went away.” 

Maine saw a 13% jump in overdose deaths last year, establishing a new grim record for the state, with fentanyl accounting for about 80% of those overdoses. 

The response of the Mills administration has largely focused on fentanyl’s role in the increase. 

“This opioid epidemic today is more lethal than ever due to illicit drugs like fentanyl, which is responsible for eight of every 10 overdose deaths in Maine,” the state’s Director of Opioid Response Gordon Smith said in a statement following the release of the numbers. 

But Brokos and other harm reduction advocates, who say they are not trying to downplay the dangers of unregulated fentanyl, worry that putting all the blame for Maine’s overdose crisis on the synthetic opioid is a mistake.

They say outsized fears of fentanyl will be weaponized by politicians to further criminalize people who use drugs and to push for policies that in the end may do more harm than good.

“I think we just made the mistake by focusing on the substance itself, because the substance is always going to change,” Brokos said. “Fentanyl hysteria is nothing different than bath salts hysteria, crack cocaine hysteria, cannabis hysteria. It’s not about the substance, it’s about the way the community responds to it.”

“And right now, we need resources,” she continued, referring to the harm-reduction outreach that organizations like the Church of Safe Injection and Maine Access Points provide, including supplying people with clean syringes, naloxone to reverse overdoses and fentanyl test strips, along with offering a variety of health services.

“We need funding or our programs are going to close if they are not prioritized by the state,” she said.

A useful culprit

A drug bust by the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. | Courtesy of MDEA

On the streets of Maine, as in other parts of the country, fentanyl has largely replaced heroin, which has become increasingly difficult to find. That has led to more overdoses, as Fentanyl is 40 times more powerful than heroin by weight.

“By 2016, harm reduction activists noted the product on the street that was being sold as heroin had almost none,” reads A Better Path for Maine: The case for decriminalizing drugs, a 2022 joint report by the ACLU of Maine and the Maine Center for Economic Policy. “The use of non-regulated fentanyl and its chemical cousins resulted in highly variable potency. People who use drugs did not know what they were taking and were unable to calculate the dose. Overdose reports increased.”

Harm reduction advocates note that a focus on fentanyl’s potency has provided policymakers with a simplistic explanation for the overdose crisis, which obscures deeper social causes like poverty, trauma, isolation, and lack of access to health care, housing, and mental and behavioral support services. 

Winifred Tate, director of the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College, said characterizing fentanyl as a hyper-potent drug unlike anything we’ve seen before only sets up justifications for tougher penalties for the people caught possessing the drug. 

“Focusing on one substance instead of a broad public health response will only lead to more death and more people in jail,” Tate said in a statement last week about the Mills administration’s response to the latest overdose numbers. “We need a public health response that meets the needs of Maine communities, not more punishment to appease the fears of politicians.” 

But on top of rising overdose deaths, fentanyl has also been made the culprit for other systemic challenges facing the state.

In an interview last month on Maine Calling, Gov. Janet Mills blamed fentanyl for the “substantial issues” identified by an independent ombudsman who reviewed the state’s child protective services. The investigation found that many children are being allowed to stay too long in dangerous settings and caseworkers are failing to investigate new reports of abuse.

“You don’t have to be an expert to know the prevalence of fentanyl — and drugs of that sort, methamphetamine — in households across the state of Maine is having a terrible effect on children,” Mills said. “When you read reports that fentanyl powder is found on a three-year-old’s teddy bear, there’s something wrong. There’s something amiss. And that is a major problem that is contributing to the number of child welfare cases.”

Mills did not mention the longstanding struggle to recruit and retain caseworkers because state employees’ wages are not competitive with the private sector as a potential cause.

“How is that your answer?” Brokos said. “We have children dying in foster care.”

Justifying criminalization

Gov. Janet Mills during a TV debate in October. | Screenshot via WGME CBS 13

While many Republicans have used the panic around fentanyl to stoke fear of crime and immigrants and advance an agenda to militarize the country’s southern border, some Democrats have likewise used the hysteria to double down on tough-on-crime posturing.

Mills’ public statements about fentanyl often emphasize going after traffickers, in conjunction with expanding treatment.

“To stop drugs from reaching Maine, we have focused on disrupting mid-level and higher level drug traffickers,” the governor said in a radio address last year. “Last year alone, Maine DEA agents seized nearly 23 pounds of fentanyl all over Maine.”

Expanding treatment alongside cracking down on trafficking is incoherent from a policy point of view, harm reduction advocates say. That’s because, in reality, the line between a trafficker and a regular drug user is often blurry or nonexistent. 

In Maine, possession of just two grams of fentanyl can get a person charged with felony drug furnishing, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

“Anyone engaged in daily consumption of opioids can tell you that two grams of fentanyl, once you’ve developed a tolerance, is really not that much at all, and can absolutely be considered personal use,” Brokos explained. 

Since taking office in 2019, Mills has championed some drug policy reforms. Maine has become nationally recognized for allowing people suffering from opioid-use disorder in the state’s prison system to be treated with medications like methadone and buprenorphine. The state has decriminalized possession of empty syringes and drug paraphernalia, including fentanyl test strips. 

Mills also signed one of the most expansive Good Samaritan laws in the country, allowing people to call 911 without fear of prosecution. Mills approved the Good Samaritan law after initially voicing concerns about the “unintended consequences of allowing drug trafficking to occur wholesale while leaving us helpless to do anything about it.”

But Mills opposed a major drug decriminalization bill in 2021 and to some her position hasn’t changed substantially since then. 

“We’ve come to this place now where everyone can quote Johann Hari [author of “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs”] and say, ‘We can’t arrest our way out of this,’” Brokos said. “Everyone can say these things, but they are not actually willing to do what it means.”

She said while there’s a growing consensus that the overdose crisis is a public health problem requiring a public health solution, that has so far not translated into a political willingness to decriminalize drugs — especially not drugs like fentanyl. 

“We want legislation that reflects what we know will immediately reduce the number of overdose deaths in our state,” Brokos said. 

“We know that housing-first models work,” she said, referring to supportive housing for unhoused residents where they are offered psychosocial and rehabilitative services. 

“We know that providing people safe places to consume substances works,” she said, referring to safe consumption sites where people can self-administer previously obtained drugs with trained staff present to respond with first aid if necessary to prevent an overdose. 

“We know that giving people access to medical detox beds or residential treatment programs works,” she added.

With fentanyl accounting for 80% of overdose deaths last year, harm reduction advocates worry that the desire by policymakers to further criminalize drugs may be stronger than ever, all while so many public health solutions still seem so far off.

“We’ve poured all this money into prison to provide medication assisted treatment, which is good,” Brokos said. “But for many of the people I’ve had conversations with over the last couple years, the first time they ever were treated for their mental health issues or had access to methadone was in prison.”

“Then, as soon as they’re released, they can’t find a provider, they can’t get connected to care — that does not feel right,” she continued. “We cannot keep locking people in cages and think things are going to get better.”

About Dan Neumann

Avatar photoDan studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North's interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago's West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at dan(at)

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