As authorities work to unravel the causes of this weekend’s Astroworld tragedy, and who will be held accountable for the eight deaths and hundreds of injuries, different theories have emerged suggesting the opioid fentanyl may have played a role in the mayhem.
Media sources including TMZ have also suggested there were instances of attendees being injected by syringes by unknown assailants in the crowd, which could have contributed to the chaos at the event Friday night. On Twitter, rumors surged of random attacks with fentanyl filled syringes during the event, following reports that on-site emergency medical professionals were overwhelmed at the concert with at least 11 cases of cardiac arrest.
“I will tell you, one of the narratives was that some individual was injecting other people with drugs,” Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said during a press conference Saturday, where he announced that a security officer at the festival was pricked in the neck with a needle by an unknown person. He said the security officer went unconscious and then was treated and revived with Narcan, a medicinal nasal spray used for the treatment of a known or suspected opioid overdose emergency. (Narcan, or naloxone, can be administered to no ill effect even if no opioids are in the system.) Authorities have yet to confirm what the needle contained.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this happening before,” says Ben Westhoff, author of the 2019 book Fentanyl, Inc., about the idea of attendees being randomly jabbed with syringes of fentanyl. “Understanding someone’s motivation to do it is very difficult.”
“First of all, that place was packed to the gills,” Westhoff continues, “so how are people preparing spoonfuls of fentanyl powder and loading up syringes? If someone went to the trouble of obtaining the fentanyl, why would they want to waste it on someone else?”
But if such an attack were to occur, it would be quite dangerous given the strength of fentanyl, and especially pure fentanyl. Westhoff says that fentanyl could be injected anywhere on the body and cause harm: “It wouldn’t only affect you if it was injected into a vein.” And those who have never ingested fentanyl would also be more susceptible to its affects.
“If someone is shooting up fentanyl they may have a high tolerance,” says Westhoff, but if you’re just injecting it into someone who’s never used it before, then that could potentially just kill them.”
While it remains to be seen whether or not fentanyl was actually being administered through laced drugs or syringe attacks at Astroworld, such syringe attacks are not unheard of. In the U.K. over the past month, women report having been injected with so-called “date-rape drugs” like rohypnol and GHB via syringes in bars and nightclubs. The prevalence of such “needle spike” incidents resulted in a boycott of clubs and bars throughout the U.K. in late October in an effort to raise awareness around this issue, with the National Police Chiefs’ Council reporting 24 incidents of such date rape drug injections throughout the U.K. in September and October of this year.
The syringe theory is only one facet of the possible fentanyl presence at Astroworld. According to the Wall Street Journal, police are investigating the possibility of whether or not counterfeit pills possibly laced with fentanyl “played a role in some deaths and numerous casualties.” WSJ reports that “numerous concertgoers who survived were administered naloxone.”
Fentanyl-laced drugs have became a major public health issue in the past few years as fentanyl has proven particularly lethal amid the ongoing opioid epidemic. Much fentanyl is done accidentally by people taking street drugs that users did not realize had been cut with fentanyl. Drug dealers and manufacturers are known to cut street drugs like cocaine, molly and heroin with fentanyl, as the substance can boost the effect of a drug and cause a faster comedown, making the drugs seem stronger and bringing users back down quicker, which can increase the chances of a user taking — and buying — more.
Fentanyl-laced counterfeit prescription drugs mimicking substances like Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet and Xanax are currently also a major public health crisis. According to a September 2021 public safety alert from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the number of DEA-seized counterfeit pills with fentanyl has jumped nearly 430% since 2019. (The DEA classifies two milligrams of fentanyl as a deadly dose.) This powerful opioid is officially manufactured for use in medical settings, and can also be done recreationally on its own by snorting, swallowing, smoking or injecting it.
“Up until recently it was mostly just that people did it accidentally when it was cut into heroin,” says Westhoff. “You were seeing it a lot in prescription pills and cocaine. But there are definitely dealers who sell fentanyl and and people who use it.”