The White House routinely finds itself reaching to explain a spurious claim made by the current U.S. president or one of his bureaucrats. Sources are often questionable. “A lot of people” and “many people” are two of Donald Trump's favourites, for example.
It’s less common for the White House to point to the Vancouver Police Department (VPD). But that is sort of what happened in late March when the Trump administration was pressured to explain its claim that fentanyl is turning up in cannabis.
How, exactly, did the Vancouver police become a footnote for this doubtful comment from the White House?
It began with a remark from Kellyanne Conway, once a high-profile Trump spokesperson who for some reason now holds the title of White House “opioid-crisis czar”.
“People are unwittingly ingesting it [fentanyl],” Conway said. “It’s laced into heroin, marijuana, meth, cocaine, and it’s also just being distributed by itself.”
That the dangerous synthetic-opioid fentanyl has contaminated illegal-cannabis supplies is a claim that officials in a number of jurisdictions have repeated in recent years. In November 2016, for example, then-B.C. premier Christy Clark suggested that fentanyl was showing up in West Coast cannabis. “I think regulating marijuana is even more important now when we're finding fentanyl in marijuana," Clark said.
But the claim is almost always without evidence and quickly debunked as false. Soon enough, officials are forced to admit they made it up or were mistaken. “This was reported in error,” Clark’s public safety minister said less than a week after her comment.
In September 2017, the fentanyl-in-cannabis claim even received its very own page at the myth-busting website Snopes.
And so D.C. journalists were skeptical when they heard the White House opioid-crisis czar repeat this assertion that has proven false so many times before.
According to BuzzFeed News, reporters asked Trump officials on what basis Conway made the claim.
In response, the White House said it came from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a federal research body that focuses on drugs and addiction. "Fentanyl is being used to lace a wide variety of drugs, including marijuana,” NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow said during a speech she made in July 2018.
So reporters asked NIDA where it got the idea that fentanyl had found its way into weed.
NIDA’s response: “Anecdotal reports,” according to BuzzFeed, and, apparently, the Vancouver Police Department. “Specifically a 2015 Vancouver police report claiming ‘fentanyl-laced marijuana’ was killing drug users,” NIDA told BuzzFeed.
The BuzzFeed article notes the VPD later walked back its claim. Since then, the force has actually said more than once that it has never confirmed fentanyl in a sample of B.C. bud. But the 2015 VPD media release that NIDA found and used in its defence of the White House is still available on the VPD’s website. (Update: After the publication of this article, the VPD added a correction to the 2015 release.)
What does the VPD think of all of this? Not a lot.
The Straight contacted the force’s media-relations department and asked Sgt. Jason Robillard for a comment. The VPD spokesperson emphasized that the 2015 media release includes an error that was later corrected, adding: “We don’t have anything further to share.”