Person's hands lighting a huge joint over an ashtray

The warning sounded ominous: “… three unresponsive persons calls in the last 24 hours. The common denominator appears to be marijuana laced with an unknown opiate. The victims are unaware they are using anything other than marijuana but are overdosing like they had used heroin or fentanyl. Be cautious and call 911 ASAP if you suspect an overdose.”

Yikes. So I read a post on the Facebook page of the Painesville Township Fire Department on February 8, 2016.

Fair? Ohio has indeed been hit hard by the opioid crisis. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation accorded Ohio the dubious distinction of having highest number of annual opiate-related deaths – some 2,106. This tragedy has touched countless families and stretched the limited resources of first responders like fire departments.

On first blush, the warning had the community interest at heart. Or did it?

Within a few hours, the post had gone viral. As of this writing, 4,846 shares, 259 likes and 120 comments, for an organization that received only one congratulatory note for its 50th anniversary.

So let’s parse the warning and its media reports. Without confirmation, the fire department established marijuana as a “common denominator.” ABC News 5 took that statement one step further, “Three separate incidents, but all with the same result—overdoses from opiate-laced marijuana…The victims were unaware that they were using anything besides marijuana.” added a quote from Fire Chief Frank Whittaker, “We haven't seen anything like this before…That's why we wanted to warn the public."

Unequivocal. The “alternative facts” heard ‘round the world warned that marijuana in Lake County, Ohio was laced with heroin or fentanyl.

But as the fire department would learn, their news was “fake news.” Three days later, toxicology reports told a very different story. In the words of a update (emphasis added), “…the three people who claimed THEY had overdosed on marijuana laced with an unknown opiate actually used crack cocaine and other drugs.”

So the REAL story is that the Painesville Township Fire Department issued a dire, viral warning based on self-reports from the three people who overdosed, not on an investigation or a toxicology report.

The department subsequently released a “follow up” (not a correction), saying, “lab results indicated no evidence of laced marijuana.” Then, it acknowledged the source of the warning – dishonest people who later admitted to using other drugs. To top that off, the sensationalized, fact-deficient Facebook post was made “in the best interest” of the community. How does false information keep people from dying of opiate related incidents?

Maybe an infusion of truth is needed. Start with Wikipedia, “…marijuana is less likely to be adulterated than hard drugs...” Sure it may happen, but it is rare. Here’s why. Essentially, heroin and fentanyl are too expensive and too overwhelmingly desirable to be wasted on marijuana. Further, had Chief Whittaker conducted a simple Google search, he would have found a similar incident in British Columbia last year. The outcome? Per the CBC News headline, “pot laced with fentanyl not true, say police.”

Here’s what’s worse. The Painesville Township Fire Department’s “fake news” claiming a “common denominator” between marijuana and heroin or fentanyl overdoses obscures the plant’s emerging potential as an effective exit agent from opiate addiction. Long utilized to treat pain and other ailments, cannabis (marijuana’s scientific name) comes with an important side effect: no one in the history of mankind has ever died from ingesting it. Not one deadly overdose. Ever.

In its follow up, the Painesville Township Fire Department asked for understanding. Indeed, first responders have a tough, demanding job, and indeed, the sheer number of opiate overdoses is staggering. But public understanding should not extend to warnings that are false.

Even in the darkest times, fact and truth must be the guiding lights. In this day of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” both are becoming endangered species. The fire department’s ill-fated warning serves as a case in point. A poorly sourced half-truth goes viral only to be found false. The serious subject of opiate overdose becomes trivialized and the credibility of first responders, tainted. All the while, the good news about marijuana’s potential as an exit from this nightmare is lost in the flurry.

The lesson? Even during a crisis, truth must not be sacrificed for the sake of expediency. Check your facts first.

Update: On February 20, 2017, Painesville Township Fire Chief Frank Whittaker was asked for his comments on the facts behind this article. He said that the department made the Facebook post because they, “Can’t get lab results that quickly.” When asked if he researched the subject before making the post, he replied, “No, we took the word of the three who overdosed and their friends.” When queried as to why, he abruptly hung up.

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