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Why is Fentanyl in Cocaine?
People think this is part of some evil agenda to secretly get more customers addicted. No. This is the direct result of prohibition markets.
There is a Part II to this post here.
Last Sunday, the Wall Street Journal, ran a huge feature story about three “high achieving” New Yorkers who ordered cocaine from the same phone-order delivery service. A social worker, a finance executive, and a young lawyer all died from fentanyl overdoses after placing their cocaine order. According to the unsealed criminal complaint, the cocaine had a mix of fentanyl and acetylfentanyl in it, which are potent synthetic opioids that an unsuspecting user has little tolerance for.
The Journal’s reporting, based on the complaint and numerous interviews, offers a vivid account of these people’s lives just before they died. But neither the complaint nor the story answers the central question on everybody’s mind: Why is there fentanyl in cocaine?
Since this story came out, multiple people have sent me DMs and emails asking: What the fuck? Why would “dealers” do this to their customers? What business sense does this make?
The government wants to charge the people they say are involved in this delivery service with running a narcotics conspiracy that resulted in death. “In the course of a single day, the defendants’ Delivery Service caused the deaths of three unrelated victims in Manhattan by selling the victims purported cocaine that was, in fact, laced with fentanyl,” the complaint reads.
There’s a subtle thing I picked up on here. The government says the Delivery Service indeed sold the cocaine “laced” with fentnayl. But they do not say, nor am I aware that they are alleging, that the Delivery Service did the actual lacing. And that’s what I want to zoom in on here: 1) At what level in the supply chain was the fentanyl mixed into cocaine? and 2) Why is this happening?
To be sure, I have not investigated this specific Manhattan Delivery Service. I have not spoken to the people alleged to have been running the service. Based on reading the court affadavit, various news stories, and other reporting I’ve done about the dynamics of the drug supply, all I can do is speculate about what happened here. Below, I make clear when I’m pulling facts from the criminal complaint and when I’m offering my own speculation.
The events I’m writing about ocurred during March 2021.
Why do dealers add fentanyl to cocaine?
Most dealers are not doing this. When something terrible like this does happen, I think it says much more about the state of the drug market and its structural dynamics than the people who are working in that market.
The main reason I’ve heard from researchers and analysts about the cocaine-fentanyl phenomenon is that there is simply too much illicit fentanyl being manufactured. There is way too much fentanyl and not nearly enough of the old school agriculturally produced drugs like cocaine and heroin that people very much want and seek out. This is a supply-side problem, not a demand-side problem. There is a surplus of street fentanyl out there and this excess fentanyl supply has to go somewhere. Someone, somewhere, is on the hook for it.
The illicit drug supply chain, like all markets today, is complex and multi-layered. And I think that market dynamics happenning above the retail sales level (e.g. The Delivery Service) is where this excess/surplus fentanyl gets mixed into cocaine. It could be happening via some accidental contamination. A brick of fentanyl accidentally gets added to cocaine and nobody notices. Then drug buyers who work closer to the retail-level make a bulk purchase and they get stuck with contaminated product.
Those who run retail-level sales operations typically go through middle-men who act as a go between, seperating the street level from bigger brokers and regional distributors. My speculation is that the fentanyl is being mixed into cocaine supplies at these upper-levels of the market, perhaps several rungs above the retail-level.
In this Manhattan case, it appears the Delivery Service eventually realized something was wrong with their product. I think the evidence in the complaint makes the case that it was not them who did the actual lacing. After they already made some sales of a “new batch” it seemed they realized their drugs were tainted and something was going very wrong.
I want to start with one part of the complaint that appeared in the WSJ article that really stuck out to me. It’s a text message exchange between one of the now deceased customers, Amanda Scher, a social worker, and the dispatcher. “On that March day, Ms. Scher texted a number stored in her phone as ‘Jason Melissa’” to place a cocaine order.
“Question first,” Ms. Scher wrote.
“Is it the same as it was Sunday? Because that was not good lol, had to get rid of it.”
“No new…Batch,” came the reply.
“Def better,” Ms. Scher texted about two hours after the delivery.
Texts came in from the delivery-service number:
“Hey try not to do too much because it’s really strong”
“Hey boss lady you heard”
The WSJ piece shows the Delivery Service then making a bunch of panicked phone calls and texts to the customers hours after they purchased their orders. Around six hours after the “cocaine” delivery to the young lawyer, her phone pinged and it was the DeliveryService:
“Hey you there”
Seven calls came in that night and the next morning from the delivery-service number.
The same thing happened to the social worker. After “cocaine” was delivered to her, the Delivery Service made three FaceTime audio calls to her phone that went unanswered. Then came a text the next morning: “Hey can you give me a call back I need to ask you something real fast.”
From the WSJ piece, based on the complaint, “The day after the deliveries, Mr. Rainey sent Mr. Ortega screenshots of home drug testing kits, and Mr. Ortega switched to a different phone to take drug orders, prosecutors alleged.” Mr. Ortega and Mr. Rainey are defendants in the case, accused of running the “narcotics conspiracy.”
It seems that the Delivery Service eventually realized their batch was tainted, and that doesn’t mean it was them who did the lacing. Maybe they knowingly bought a bad batch and had no other sources, so they bought it tried to fix it. Maybe the realized their batch was bad after using a fentanyl test strip, and then sent panicked messages to their customers.
Based on the frenzy of calls and messages to their customers, one thing that seems unlikely is that this delivery service wanted to intentionally harm or poison people. The DEA often labels drug dealers as cold-blooded murderers; predators who prey on people suffering with addiction, who don’t care about safety or human life. The messages sent by The Service to their customers that were obtained by law enforcement do not sound like cold-blood murderers. The Service sounds like people who scared.
But this whole ordeal is also also confusing. Because it appears that this wasn’t the first time that the Delivery Service sold “bad” cocaine. The text messages between the social worker and the Delivery Service add another layer to this story. The social worker wanted to place an order with the service, but she told them that she had to get rid of her last batch because it was so bad. Was that batch also cut with fentanyl? Was that batch just very weak? What was going on there?
Again, I can only speculate based on what I know about the drug market right now.
I think this particular service struggled to obtain quality product. I think they realized something was wrong with their product, which they likely bought from a mid-level supplier above them in the supply chain. Maybe the Delivery Service bought drugs as they usually do but this batch was contaminated and they were stuck with what they got.
The retail-level sellers at the bottom of the supply-chain, the people who itnerface with customers, were maybe left with only bad choices. That’s the nature of prohibition markets. If they ditch the bad batch and don’t sell it, then they are likely to lose out on a lot of money. So they see selling it as their only choice. What do they do? They try to cut it. They try to dilute it. They try to make do with what they’ve got, just as many small businesses in America do.
Unless they’re good chemists, the retail-level attempts to fix their product isn’t really going to work. Especially with a cocaine and fentanyl combo, where customers are using their five senses to test the quality of the drug all the time. They taste it. They smell it. They look at it. Then finally they feel it. They are feeling for a stimulating cocaine high, which is the opposite of what fentanyl does. The consistency, taste, smell, and psychoactive effect are all wrong. Perhaps that’s why the social worker “had to get rid” of the last batch. Maybe she got lucky that time and survived because she only did a tiny bit and got rid of it.
After that incident, the Delivery Service maybe had the same product and they tried to do something to improve the quality and called it “a new batch.” This is something I’ve seen dealers do a lot. They say they’ve got something good, something new, but it’s the same old junk. It’s like a crappy sale at Kohl’s. Customers arrive all excited only to see the stuff on sale is the boring shit they don’t want.
Interestingly, the social worker responded that the new batch was “def better.” Maybe the Delivery Service bought better cocaine and added it to the bad batch. But the fentanyl was still there. At first taste, the cocaine hit them first, so they used more and more. And the fentanyl crept up.
Fentanyl can hit fast, but snorting still takes roughly 10 minutes to really hit. It’s not like the movies. The effects of snorting are not instantaneous. Using this bad batch, the unwitting user is in a totally precarious place and could very well die if they’re alone and no one is there with naloxone to revive them. It seems that was the case in each of these three deaths. The social worker, the lawyer, and the finance executive used alone and died.
To try and summarize all of this:
I think this Delivery Service got stuck with a shitty batch of cocaine that had fentanyl in it and they had no recourse but to tinker with it, to try and sell it off, and hope to buy a better batch next time. Based on frantic text messages and phone calls, they realized that was a huge mistake. Neither the WSJ article nor the criminal complaint definitively prove that it was the Delivery Service that did the actual lacing and mixing. The service is certainly being accused of selling, and also for delivering drugs that resulted in death. But it’s not clear they intentionally mixed fentanyl into their cocaine as part of some nefarious plot.
You might still be asking: OK, but still. Why is the fentanyl in there? Why would the upper-level brokers and regional distributors put fentanyl in the cocaine?
I agree. That part is still puzzling. And the explanations usually provided do not pass the smell test. The WSJ feature writes, “Dealers also cut [fentanyl] into cocaine, a stimulant, to be more potent and addictive, introducing the drug to unsuspecting buyers.” But the very next sentence undermines that logic: “A tiny amount of fentanyl can kill unseasoned users.” How can both things be true at once? A dead customer is not a repeat customer.
Those who say dealers are cutting cocaine with fentanyl to create customers with a heavy addiction are typically cops and guys like Sam Quinones who I think suffer from “Cop Reporter Brain.” They project nefarious Joker style agendas onto drug dealers and traffickers. Unlike them, I tend to assume that the reasons for this phenomenon are more boring, unsexy, and maybe even involve Coen Brothers levels of incompetence and stupidity. I think the problems with America’s drug supply have more to do with the principles of capitalism, economics, technology, and the inherent danger of prohibition markets than any evil agenda.
Another wrinkle to this story is the whole “rainbow fentanyl” panic. Reporting by Luis Chaparro in Insider shows that cartels dyed fentanyl with various colors as a form of consumer protection. If the cocaine is white and the fentanyl is blue or purple or pink, then it’ll be harder to mix the two without raising eyebrows.
Dude, why is your coke purple?
The DEA called this a sinister plot to lure young children as fentanyl customers. I don’t think that’s true. Chaparro’s reporting actually tells a story that makes sense from a business perspective. The DEA’s story makes sense if their goal is to scare parents. Mission Accomplished.
Then there’s the macro supply story. Manufacturers are producing staggering amounts of fentanyl, creating a huge surplus. Higher-level distributors and regional managers and brokers are probably getting loads of fentanyl dumped on their lap. Too much for them to possibly sell. Meanwhile, they have a lot of buyers looking for cocaine and other drugs that are not Terminator Fentanyl. Maybe some dealers do not have enough cocaine to fill the demand. Maybe, and this is a big maybe, to stretch out their cocaine supply while trying to get rid of their surplus fentanyl supply, they get creative and mix.
I think there’s a lot of problems with that explanation. If a dealer wants to multiply the volume of their cocaine, cutting it with fentanyl doesn’t really make sense. Why not just use something cheap and harmless like baking soda or baby laxative?
Which is why all of this points me in the direction of ineptitude and sloppiness. If the fentanyl isn’t dyed a color, then it’s usually a white powder. Cocaine is a white powder. Maybe by accident, a brick of fentanyl somewhere in the supply chain got mixed into a batch of cocaine. And some unlucky Delivery Service in Manhattan got stuck buying that tainted cocaine, causing these deaths and bringing down tons of heat on their operation. Mixing these drugs is clearly bad for business.
If the government’s complaint is to be believed, it looks like this Delivery Service was a small, low-level, retail operation. An operation, by the way, that was not really that sophisticated. Drug deals were being done through text with no code whatsoever. Cameras in building and elevators captured all the sales going down. That shows a kind of carelessness and recklessness on the part of the Service.
The police and a lot of Americans want to blame an evil agenda for comitting this atrocity. A bad, no, evil person must have done this to someone. Instead, it is more helpful to think of this event in terms of the structural relations that produce certain outcomes. Drug suppliers and sellers are capitalists like everybody else. They operate in a dangerous and unregulated market. They're stuck in this shitty market and sometimes they're left with only bad decisions. Again, this is an outcome of prohibition markets.
I want to end this post with a rather trenchant insight from the father of one of the victims who ordered cocaine from the Delivery Service:
“Sassan Ghahramani, Ms. Ghahramani’s father, said the fentanyl in his daughter’s cocaine was like having cyanide appear in an alcoholic drink during Prohibition.”
That really happened! People who drank illicit alcohol during prohibition were poisoned all the time by bad batches. In fact, Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize–winning science writer and director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program at MIT, and the publisher of Undark, wrote in Slate that the U.S. government purposefully poisoned batches of alcohol being sold to bootleggers during Prohibition. Federal officials wanted to scare people into giving up drinking because it was illegal.
Blum wrote, “By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.”
You can read the Part II to this post here.