Is Candy-Like ‘Rainbow Fentanyl’ A Real Halloween Scare Targeting Your Kids?

With all those monster costumes out there, Halloween can be pretty scary in a make-believe type of way. But should an August 30 warning from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) about “rainbow fentanyl” be a real scare for parents and children this upcoming Halloween? After all, in the announcement, the DEA warned about brightly-colored candy-like fentanyl being used by proverbial monster drug traffickers to “target young Americans” to get them addicted to the synthetic opioid. And on an episode of the Fox News show “The Five,” co-host Jeanine Pirro suggested that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) should be “sounding the alarm with the White House” about the “rainbow fentanyl” problem. Or alternatively should everyone take five from all this talk and consider such alarms over the rainbow fentanyl to be over the top? Well, before you tell your kids, “no trick or treating for you” and do something drastic like hoard toilet paper again, let’s take a closer look at the situation and determine how this rainbow connection may have been made.

The August 30 DEA announcement did quote DEA Administrator Anne Milgram as saying that, “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.” Yes, Milgram used the words “deliberate effort,” implying that drug traffickers have been purposely making fentanyl look like candy to get young ones addicted. To perhaps suggest that this deliberate effort is already quite widespread, the DEA announcement also indicated that the agency and their law enforcement partners had seized collections of rainbow fentanyl in 18 different states.

Speaking of seizing, some politicians and political commentators wasted little time to seize upon the DEA announcement to sound even more alarms. For example, after Schumer had in a press conference described rainbow fentanyl as “really worrisome and really dangerous” and called for $290 million more in anti-drug initiative funding, the aforementioned Pirro said the following about the aforementioned Schumer on her aforementioned Fox News show: “I’m happy he’s talking about it. But shouldn’t he be sounding the alarm with the White House? Shouldn’t the White House be talking about the fact that this is happening, or would it be too dangerous?” Pirro’s co-host Brian Kilmeade then chimed in with “Absolutely. If you really cared, you would actually be saying, ‘China to cartel, across the border, into your bedroom, into your living room, into your dorm room.’” As you can see in the video accompanying this tweet from Justin Baragona, media reporter for The Daily Beast, “The Five” went on to suggest not having your kids go trick-or-treating this year and even equated this situation to the pandemic:

Meanwhile, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has warned that “Every mom in the country right now is worried, what if this gets into my kid’s Halloween basket, the rainbow fentanyl. What if my teenager gets this.” Yes, McDaniel said “every mom,” but didn’t mention how she somehow managed to talk to every single mom in the country, which would have taken quite a lot of time.

Then there was U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) sending a letter on September 7 to Milgram demanding that the DEA detail how they are “working with state and local law enforcement to raise awareness of rainbow fentanyl” and “working with primary and secondary schools to inform parents and their children about the prevalence of rainbow fentanyl and how to identify it.”

Politicians and political commentators haven’t been the only ones amplifying the DEA’s warnings. On September 29, Hartford HealthCare placed a warning post on its website that said, “First it was razorblades in apples then marijuana-laced gummies, but this year, parents have a new Halloween worry – rainbow fentanyl.” This post went on to quote Milgram as saying, “Our kids are on smartphones, and that means that the cartels are following them. The cartels are on smartphones, and what we know without question is that most young people are aware that there are people dealing drugs on social media.” Yikes. Does this mean that just because you have a smartphone a drug cartel is following you? What happened to the “opt out of drug cartel following you” option on your smartphone settings?

A lot of this seemed to have the “they’re coming to get your children” ring to it, which could very well be panic-inducing for you if you are a parent or in some way believe that children are our future. After all, you probably don’t want to wonder, “is he or she talking to a drug cartel,” every time a child is on a smartphone.

Although all of this talk could have you a bit spooked with Halloween just around the corner, remember that there is something else around the corner: something called the midterm elections. You know, those things that many politicians are relying on to get into office or stay there. One oft-used tactic of politicians to win elections is to use or imply the f-word, which in this case stands for the word “fear.” Kirk Waldroff has described for the American Psychological Association how fear tactics can help influence voting behavior, including citing a study published in the Psychological Bulletin that found that, in Waldroff’s words, “messages with fear were nearly twice as effective as messages without fear.” Thus, relying on politicians to tell you what to worry about health-wise can be a bit like relying on random people on a dating app to tell you what to do with your life.

So it’s best instead to rely on the evidence that’s been presented or the lack thereof. The question then is how much should you be concerned about “rainbow fentanyl” for this Halloween and beyond, especially if you have kids? Well, fentanyl, in general, has certainly been a problem in the U.S. in recent years. Originally developed as a powerful medication for those with severe, intractable pain, fentanyl has since become a commonly-used recreational drug that’s about a hundred times more powerful than morphine and fifty times more potent than heroin, which by the way is not a good thing. Besides being addictive, fentanyl can harm your body in a variety of ways including depressing your ability to breathe. Breathing, as you probably have realized, is kind of important for the whole being alive thing. That’s why fentanyl use in a non-medical settings can lead to death.

In fact, in 2021, there was a record 107,622 drug poisoning and overdose deaths in the U.S. with synthetic opioids like fentanyl being responsible for approximately 66 percent of them. It doesn’t take much fentanyl to be deadly, just two milligrams-worth. And finding that amount in the U.S. doesn’t seem to be a super-hard thing to do. According to a September 30 announcement, from May 23 through September 8, 2022, the DEA and its law enforcement partners seized over 10.2 million fentanyl pills and around 980 pounds of fentanyl powder, as part of the One Pill Can Kill initiative.

With all this, finding fentanyl that looks like candy is definitely not a good thing. Typically, you won’t hear people say, “it’s great when any potentially deadly substance can look like candy.” When something looks like candy, there is always the risk that children may mistaken it for something fun and not harmful. And “rainbow fentanyl” encompasses a variety of different colorful forms ranging from pills to powders to things that looks like blocks of chalk. These don’t seem to be color-coded in a particular way either. Don’t assume that certain colors of fentanyl may be less harmful or even OK to take. That would be like trying to determine what color bowling ball is OK to drop on your foot. Instead, consider any type of fentanyl used outside a formal medical setting to be dangerous and potentially deadly.

But how much hard evidence is there that rainbow fentanyl is a candy-coated deliberate attempt to get kids in the U.S. addicted to fentanyl? There are other possible reasons why such multi-colored versions of the synthetic opioid exist. One possibility is to disguise the fentanyl because trafficking fentanyl isn’t exactly like trafficking chicken tenders. Buying and selling fentanyl for non-medical uses is illegal. And it’s common to want to disguise illegal activity.

A second possibility is that making fentanyl multi-colored could make it more attractive for adults. Just because you are old enough to pay your own bills and suffer existential crises doesn’t mean that you have lost interest in colorful things. And just because something is colorful doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s for the kids.

A third possibility is that these counterfeit fentanyl formulations are just made that way. Jorge Caballero, MD, a Clinical Instructor in Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford Medical School, pointed out that even versions of oxycodone that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) come in a number of different colors:

It’s too much of a rainbow connection to assume that fentanyl looking like candy alone means that there’s an organized, coordinated massive attempt to get American kids hooked on fentanyl. That would be like assuming that there’s been an organized, coordinated massive attempt to get everyone to wear low riding jeans. Appearance alone shouldn’t imply intent. Even if there are some people out there trying to foist fentanyl on kids and younger adults, it’s unclear how many people are really doing so.

Plus, kids aren’t exactly known for having high disposable incomes, assuming that they haven’t hit it big on YouTube reviewing stuff or making prank videos. It probably wouldn’t make financial sense for most fentanyl dealers to target kids because being able to pay for it tends to be a criteria for choosing customers. It would make even less sense for dealers to simply give away the fentanyl for free as a Halloween treat. That would cost dealers a pretty penny. Actually, a pretty 3000 pennies, given that a single pill can cost around $30, as Caballero emphasized:

So, plopping a fentanyl pill down into a track-or-treater’s bag could be the equivalent cost-wise of plopping down a toaster. It could quickly get quite expensive and untenable for a dealer. Moreover, Ryan Marino, MD, an Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine who specializes in toxicology at the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, tweeted another reason why surreptitiously passing along fentanyl to kids wouldn’t quite make business sense for fentanyl dealers:

Yeah, it’s typically a good idea to keep your buyers alive and thus able to continue paying you. Thus, don’t consider this surreptitiously-passing-fentanyl-to-kids-for-Halloween possibility to be in the bag quite yet.

Ultimately, there hasn’t seemed to be enough evidence presented to date to support the drug-cartels-following-youth-on-smartphones-and-deliberately-targeting-youth-to-get-them-addicted-to-fentanyl-which-has-all-mothers-in-the-country-worried narrative. Can you completely rule out this narrative? No. But at the same time, it would be difficult to completely rule out many possibilities such as a theory that alpacas are somehow at the center of all of this.

So far, there’s really no compelling reason to panic and forbid your kids from going Halloween trick-or-treating this year. The key then is balancing open communcation with your kids while not trying to scare the bejeezus out of them and anyone else. Sure, you can make them aware of the fentanyl problem in general and let them know about the rainbow fentanyl thing. But it’s probably not a good idea to have your kids live in fear and not trust anyone.

Instead, help them develop a general framework to better evaluate and avoid risky situations in general. Make sure that your kids realize that just because something looks like candy doesn’t mean that it’s harmless. You wouldn’t want your kids wolfing down a whole body of Tums, for example, right? Heck, real candy in and of itself is not great for your health, although a fistful of candy corn probably won’t make you hallucinate or drop dead immediately. Urge your kids to not consume anything that they can’t readily identify. Heed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) standard advice to “tell children not to accept – and especially not to eat – anything that isn’t commercially wrapped. Inspect commercially wrapped treats for signs of tampering, such as an unusual appearance or discoloration, tiny pinholes, or tears in wrappers. Throw away anything that looks suspicious.”

Of note, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen the whole dangerous-drugs-disguised-as candy narrative. In fact, it’s like déjà vu all over again. And again and again. Cabellero pointed out repeated dissemination of such warnings since 2015:

Again, until there’s more data available, it won’t be clear how much actual targeting of kids is really occurring. Could a lot of this “they’re-targeting-your-kids” stuff be in fact targeting someone else, namely adult voters for the mid-term elections? Who knows for sure. But trying to scare adults about what may happen to their kids just for political reasons would be some scary stuff indeed.

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