John Oliver says fentanyl is dangerous but not 'smallpox,' and we should help drug users live, not die

"Our main story tonight concerns drugs," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight, showing and laughing at an anti-drug PSA. "But despite those very compelling arguments, millions upon millions of Americans still use illicit drugs, and it is easy to see why: Drugs can be a lot of fun. Some, in fact, can be so much fun they end up ruining your f---ing life."

"The fact is, street drugs are an absolute mess right now," because "they've become so contaminated," overdose deaths have skyrocketed, Oliver said. "And the rise in overdose deaths has been driven by the presence of one drug in particular, fentanyl."

Oliver first pointed out that, contrary to what you might hear from police departments or on Blue Bloods, you cannot overdose from just touching fentanyl and you would need to stand in "a wind tunnel with massive amounts of fentanyl to accidentally inhale enough to OD." And since fentanyl isn't actually, "smallpox in a bottle," he said, "it frankly makes much more sense to focus on how to protect those genuinely at risk over overdosing on it, and that is the people taking it." He pivoted to harm reduction.

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"Essentially, harm reduction accepts the reality that people will use illegal drugs and that some either can't or don't want to stop, so rather than arrest them, we might be better off trying to mitigate the damage done," Oliver said. He ran through some tried-and-true harm reduction tools — drug testing, naloxone (Narcan), overdose prevention centers (or supervised injection sites) — and the barriers the U.S. has put up to prevent people and communities from using them.

"So often, the problem facing all harm reduction programs is that people are so angry with those who use drugs they want to try and punish them into abstinence," Oliver said. "But that is not how any of this works." The Biden administration should do more, "but we all need to get on board here. Our ingrained stigmas around drugs and the people who use them run really deep. And if we really want to minimize death and keep people safe," he said, "we need to meet people where they are, help them transition into safe drug use to stay alive, and remove barriers for those seeking addiction treatment" — because right now, America's de facto drug policy is taking away everything from drug users so they use until they die.

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.