Rainbow fentanyl is a war-on-drugs tactic

Don't mind the rainbow fentanyl panic, trick-and-treating with your kids is safe
Rainbow fentanyl is a war-on-drugs tactic
Photo: Brian Snyder (Reuters)
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Imagine if fentanyl, the high-potency, synthetic opioid most commonly responsible for overdose deaths in the US, was tweaked to appeal to children. Instead of drab, off-white pills, the tablets, would be colorful—for instance, pink, yellow, or blue. They would look just like those heart-shaped Valentine’s Day candies, only smaller, round—and deadly.

Imagine if those fun-colored pills—one of them enough to kill—were put on the illicit drug market ahead of Halloween, just in time for trick-and-treating, and ended up in children’s baskets. Now, imagine it’s your children at risk.

Welcome to a parent’s nightmare: rainbow fentanyl.

“Rainbow fentanyl—fentanyl pills and powder that come in a variety of bright colors, shapes, and sizes—is a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults,” said US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official Anne Milgram in a press briefing on Aug. 30.

The image of the colorful pills attached to the release quickly became ubiquitous. From public health authorities, to school districts, to politicians, to media outlets, everyone rushed to alert parents ahead of Halloween, and promised action against the cartels targeting children.

But there is a difference between seizing colorful pills and warning that, as Milgram said in the briefing, “kids and young adults” might be their target, and conjuring images of little children finding deadly pills in their candy baskets. This fear mongering about how drug use and substance use disorder spreads is a long-used strategy to stir-up war-on-drugs sentiments among the general population. The consequence (and often, end goal) is a strengthening the same criminal approaches to curbing drug sales, which have proven ineffective time and again.

A brief history of colored drugs

Colorful opioid pills are nothing new. In fact, the pills authorized by the US Food and Drugs Administration for pain come in a variety of shades, often associated with their potency. But the addition of colors to counterfeit fentanyl pills is more recent—though not as new as the reports might suggest, says Claire Zagorski a researcher at the Pharmacy Addictions Research & Medicine Program of the University of Texas at Austin. Researchers in the field of drug abuse have been receiving reports of dyed fentanyl, in particular bright blue, for several months. They are most likely treated with food dye, and it isn’t out of the question that the goal would be to make them more attractive—particularly to young adults.

“There’s a long history in our alcohol and tobacco industries of using color products to entice younger people into trying these addictive substances. So it’s not entirely baseless... to think that drug dealers like tobacco companies and alcohol companies, are using colors to attract youth,” says Brandon del Pozo, assistant professor of medicine at Brown University and a retired chief of police.

But the idea that they might have been developed to trick children—at Halloween, no less—or that drug cartels might be developing a ploy to target young children appears baseless.

It’s not that drug cartels would have moral qualms about selling drugs to anyone. It’s just that children are not a very lucrative target group: They have no independence, no ability to make purchasing choices, no disposable income. Dropping some colorful drug tablets in a child’s trick-or-treat basket would carry huge risks—parents might notice, the police would be quick to find the culprit—without clear rewards. “Drug sellers are business people and they’re very good at what they do. [...] They move things cannily and quietly.” says Zagorski. “They do things that don’t draw attention.”

Indeed, the DEA’s Milgram clarified that the children who are at risk of exposure to rainbow fentanyl are 12 and above. But this hasn’t stopped many politicians and the media from spreading a panic about the risk for young children, and the assumption that the goal is to target the youngest possible consumers. Then there’s the suggestion that immigrants are responsible for bringing the rainbow pills to American streets (in reality, immigrants make very bad drug mules, because they are subject to too much scrutiny when crossing borders).

“Putting out a press release isn’t irresponsible, but spinning that up into a national panic in several communities about an effort to kill our children is,” says del Pozo.

Who likes to scare parents?

Fear mongering by suggesting drugs are being marketed specifically to children is very effective. Halloween drug tricks disguised as treats has been an especially resilient urban legend. In the 1970s, the fear was of sleeping pills in children’s candies (not to mention elusive razors or needles in apples), and in following years reports of children dying from cyanide- or heroin-laced candies spread panic, only to be later debunked as intentional murders, or household accidents. Last year, the warning was for treats containing marijuana.

Like all conspiracies, these legends start from a kernel of truth: Indeed, there have been many reports of children getting access to weed gummies and other drugs (legal or otherwise), but the substances were accidentally found in the home, not handed to them by strangers with an agenda.

These myths help feed a broader hostility toward drug users, a tactic that has been very helpful to promote the war on drugs. Think about crack babies: Without much evidence, the narrative spread that in-utero exposure to crack cocaine—a drug common in Black communities—would cause severe harm to fetuses. Effectively, the harm was done to their mothers and other crack users, who were further stigmatized as an effect of the myth, and systematic study of children born of mothers who used crack showed no developmental issues down the road.

There are other myths associated with opioids that have been emerging in recent months. A common one among law enforcement officials, and repeatedly rebuked by drug experts, is that touching or breathing fentanyl could cause overdose and death, when there is no such risk.

Amplifying these stories is a quick way to change the framing of the opioid epidemic from a health crisis to a criminal threat.

Those who have interest in pushing law-and-order responses to drug epidemics, including the opioid crisis, have much to gain from hysteria. Raising funds for police to arrest a vicious drug addict out to poison little children is much easier than it is when that same drug addict is actually understood to be the victim of a public health crisis.

“The DEA benefits from putting out these sorts of fantastical, non-evidence-based press releases. I was surprised to see this press release from the DEA, where they say it’s a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction among kids and young adults. [...] As far as I know, there is no evidence for that,” says Corey Davis, who directs the Harm Reduction Legal Project for the Network for Public Health Law, a non-profit that promotes use of the law to advance health equity. “The DEA’s continued existence is dependent on continuing the sort of war on drugs response to addiction and overdose.”

The effects of the rainbow fentanyl hysteria have already reached the fundraising levels: US Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, for instance, asked for a $290 million budget increase for anti-drug initiatives, using rainbow fentanyl (a moniker coined by drug dealers, he said, though there is no evidence of that) and the threat to children to justify the urgency. Similarly, calls for stronger borders have followed the rainbow fentanyl news cycle, unfoundedly blaming undocumented immigrants for its spread.

“That just feeds the type of panic that perpetuates a war outlook rather than an evidence-based outlook about the medications, prevention, and treatment that could actually make a difference,” says del Pozo, who is conducting research on the police response to the overdose crisis at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“Who benefits is the people that are trying to create a blind panic around the fentanyl crisis to get non-evidence-based, punitive responses as the main response. We have never been able to interrupt the supply of illicit drugs in a way that had an effect on any of our drug crises,” he says.

The actual threat to kids

Aside from promoting investment in law enforcement instead of harm reduction interventions and pharmacological treatment—such as making naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdoses, more accessible—the irrational panic about protecting children from rainbow fentanyl has the side effect of diminishing the credibility of the DEA. “There’s only two possibilities: one is that the DEA is completely clueless and they actually think it is true—even though as far as any of us can tell it’s not, and there is no reason to believe it is—so they’re incompetent; or number two, they know it is not true and they’re just lying. Neither is good, because we want the DEA to be made of competent professional who are accurately communicating with the public,” says Davis.

Further, focusing on a non-existent threat for younger children, this kind of panic distracts from evidence-based interventions on teenagers and young adults who might, in fact, be attracted to the new pills, says Zagorski.

But the premise is very different: It’s not small children being fooled into opioid exposure, but teens looking to buy themselves a high. “Teenagers are not going to be tricked by something that kind of sort of looks like candy. They are buying drugs on purpose,” she says.

In some way, it’s more comforting for a parent to fear an invisible external dealer looking to sneak a high-potency opioid into a child’s treat basket than to face the reality that their teenagers might be using their own money to buy drugs. But by supporting the myth, resources are taken away from education and evidence-based interventions that can prevent addiction or tackle it early on.

“We need to educate our children about the dangers of trying any illicit drug, but we shouldn’t succumb to a national panic that cartels have a master plan to use colors to hook middle schoolers on illicit fentanyl,” says del Pozo.

To this effect, notes Davis, rainbow fentanyl might even have a silver lining. One of the main reasons fentanyl is so deadly is that it’s often taken unknowingly—a lot of illegal drugs that are sold as something else are actually fentanyl, which increases the risk of overdose. Now, if all fentanyl was brightly colored, it would be easier to tell what it is, and stay away from it. In fact, Davis says, there are preliminary indicators that younger users might be turning away from opioids similarly to the response to crack after the peak of the epidemic, and having highly distinguishable rainbow pills on the streets might help them know those are exactly the drugs they do not want.