The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is warning the public of a deadly new trend: Colorful pills tainted with illicit fentanyl and sold by "drug cartels" that are "made to look like candy to children and young people." Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is driving drug overdose deaths in America, although multiple drugs play a role in the crisis that has killed 109,000 people in the 12 months since March 2022.
"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 a press release published August 30. Their claims echoes similar statements made by law enforcement earlier this summer, such as a Facebook post by Placer County, California, District Attorney Morgan Gire, who claimed "this rainbow-colored substance is one of the many tools that dealers are using to make the poison appeal to our kids."
However, drug policy experts argue that such statements are misleading — that no, these rainbow-colored pills are not being marketed to kids. The DEA did not respond to a request for comment, but Salon will update this story if we hear back.
The DEA's press release was essentially re-report by numerous media outlets, including The Hill, Seattle Times, USA Today and High Times, who ran stories repeating the DEA's talking points with little evidence or scrutiny.
While it is true that colored fentanyl has been seized many times by authorities, this is neither a recent trend nor proof that children are the intended targets.
Dr. Nabarun Dasgupta, a pharmaceutical scientist at the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill, characterized this new panic about fentanyl being marketed towards kids as "typical drug war bulls**t." Dasgupta's work includes running a drug checking service that uses analytical chemistry to detect what is in street drugs.
Dasgupta says the DEA's framing "was so divorced from any reality of what drug markets are actually like, it was almost laughable that our country's top drug enforcement folks are so out of touch."
Samples are mailed to Dasgupta from across the country, which he and his team run through a gas chromatography-mass spectrometer. The spectrometer identifies the exact chemical structure of whatever is in someone's drugs. It can tell if the MDMA someone was sold actually contains methamphetamine or whether pills sold as prescription opioids are actually illicit fentanyl.
Regarding the dyed fentanyl pills, Dasgupta says the DEA is "late to the party."
"We've been talking about colored dope for years. This is like completely nothing new," Dasgupta told Salon, describing a palette of drugs his lab has received since early 2021, including turquoise, bright magenta, purple, green, yellow, brown, and pastels.
However, Dasgupta says the DEA's framing "was so divorced from any reality of what drug markets are actually like, it was almost laughable that our country's top drug enforcement folks are so out of touch with what's happening on the ground."
Claire Zagorski, a licensed paramedic, program coordinator and harm reduction instructor for the PhARM Program at The University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy, described the DEA announcement as "old recycled drug propaganda" that echoes the perennial myth that Halloween candy might be spiked with illicit narcotics.
"Why would someone give away their expensive drugs to some random person they don't know, just so they might have a bad experience? It doesn't make sense," Zagorski told Salon. "At the end of the day, drug sellers are business people, and they're not going to invest in some kind of change to their supply if they don't think there's some good return on it … Kids don't have a lot of money that their parents don't supervise or give to them. So it just doesn't make sense from a business standpoint."
So why are drugs like fentanyl coming in so many bright colors lately? Without more evidence, it is difficult to say, but seizures alone do not verify intent. Using dyes in street drugs has a long history. In 2008, undercover cops in Ohio arrested several people with crack cocaine that had been dyed green for St. Patrick's Day, for example. Ecstasy pills are routinely produced in interesting shapes and colors, including in the shape of Mickey Mouse's head, though they are not typically sold to children. The same sort of marketing strategies could be playing out here as well.
"My guess is that it's a fairly superficial little marketing flourish," Zagorski says. "I just don't see the evidence that it's meant as a very pointed way to capture the hearts and minds of small children."
It should also be noted that people who use drugs generally pay close attention to the colors of the pills or powders they purchase. "While still in powder form, users broadly noted changes in heroin powder and solution color, as well as perceived physiological effects," researchers noted in interviews with 38 people who use heroin in the International Journal of Drug Policy in 2017. That study had a small sample size, but results like this have been replicated.
The DEA and the media outlets that have uncritically published this story don't seem to have considered that maybe adults want colored fentanyl and drug sellers are simply responding to demand. But Zagorski says the DEA's announcement seems designed to cause panic, similar to the myth that touching fentanyl can kill.
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"It feels really reactionary. It feels kind of like a 'Reefer Madness' thing," Zagorski says, referencing the 1936 anti-drug propaganda film. "If they have more convincing evidence, I'd love to see it."
Dasgupta says it is "irresponsible and reprehensible" that news outlets are reprinting this DEA alert without any pushback. "It's exactly the kind of behavior from the news organizations that leads to misinformation and panics and detracts from the very real public health dangers that we can and should be focused on," he says. "This is not one of them."