The Truth About Rainbow Fentanyl

Rainbow-fentanyl-m30-Enhanced.jpg Rainbow-fentanyl-m30-Enhanced - Credit: DEA
Rainbow-fentanyl-m30-Enhanced.jpg Rainbow-fentanyl-m30-Enhanced - Credit: DEA

The United States is nearing midterm season and the spookiest thing some Republicans can think of — besides a woman’s right to choose — is drugs being put in kids’ Halloween baskets. In an on-air interview with Fox News, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said “every mom in the country” is worried that their children will get ahold of rainbow-colored fentanyl.

McDaniel is referring to an August 30 release from the Drug Enforcement Administration, warning parents about an “alarming emerging trend” of rainbow-colored fentanyl pills targeted toward children.

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“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,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in the press release.

This comes from the same drug administration famous for annually warning parents about drugs and marijuana laced snack foods potentially hiding in their children’s Halloween basket — a popular urban legend that is debunked every year but continues to trend close to the holiday.

So how legit is rainbow fentanyl? Several harm reduction experts tell Rolling Stone while rainbow-colored fentanyl is on the streets, there’s absolutely no reason to believe cartels are creating the drugs to ensnare children.

Mariah Francis, a Resource Associate with the National Harm Reduction Coalition, tells Rolling Stone that colored pill production is not a new thing, but a way for illicit manufacturers to either identify their goods or make pills that mimic authentic pharmaceutical versions. The pills in the photos shared by the DEA are all stamped and readily identifiable as pills, making it very hard to believe children are mistaking them for colorful candy, according to Francis.

“The idea that because [the pills] are colorful means that [cartels] must be trying to force fentanyl or ply children or their Halloween candy is markedly ridiculous,” Francis tells Rolling Stone. ” People just make creative colors, and honestly, there’s no reason for it. And it’s been happening for the last 60 years. We saw it with MDMA, we see it in club drugs. And it’s actually kind of embarrassing because the DEA is really just late, late to the party.”

Francis adds that the idea that cartels want children to mistake their pills for candy is “utterly divorced from reality,” and instead points to the very nature of fentanyl production as driven by profits — something that doesn’t mesh with children who usually lack disposable income.

There are a lot of aspects that make fentanyl an attractive drug to produce. The synthetic opioid is 50 to 100 times more powerful than popular pain medicines like oxycodone or morphine, making it easy and cheap to produce in large batches. But because of its strength and usually illegal production, its steady rise and availability have skyrocketed rates of accidental overdose across the U.S. According to CDC data, almost 70,000 people died from an overdose in 2020. Of those deaths, 82 percent of them involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl. But Francis calls warnings like the DEA’s an active byproduct of drug policies that prioritize criminalization and political agendas over active harm reduction.

Shawn Westfahl, an Overdose Prevention and Harm Reduction Coordinator at Prevention Point Philadelphia, tells Rolling Stone most accidental overdoses happen with casual drug users, as addicts are aware they’re using fentanyl, but people who think they’re consuming standard pharmaceuticals can easily overdose. The easiest way to prevent this is with harm reduction techniques, like distributing Narcan, an overdose reverser, or fentanyl test trips. But there’s still a major stigma around drugs and drug users. In 19 states, including Texas, Florida, and Kansas, harm reduction resources like fentanyl strips are considered illegal drug paraphernalia, in part because of old policies supported by the DEA in the late 1970s.

“The fact of the matter is that people use substances. We want to provide that compassion-driven support, that way people can feel more free to open up and not feel stigmatized about their use,” Westfahl tells Rolling Stone. “That stigma can be so real and oftentimes lead people to use in the shadows. And we’ve lost a lot of people that way.”

Instead of focusing on warnings meant to scare parents, Francis says she wants a dedicated response to addressing the overdose crisis that centers around inclusion and promoting education.

“We are responding not to drugs or multicolored drugs. We’re responding to an era of an entrenched, heinous drug policy that the United States has created,” Francis tells Rolling Stone. “If a drug dealer decides to make something turquoise or magenta, it’s not ‘Oh my gosh, they might be targeting our children.’ They’re already targeting adults.”

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