The news: Repeated Drug Enforcement Agency warnings about brightly colored “rainbow” fentanyl in the illicit drug market have turned into misguided warnings about poisoned candy buckets ahead of Halloween.
In late August, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram warned of “a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction among kids,” in a report on seizures of both powders and counterfeit painkillers containing candy-colored fentanyl. Significant political figures from both parties — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel — later warned about rainbow fentanyl being given to kids on Halloween. The Snopes fact-checking service has described the scare as “this year’s Halloween candy panic.”
The context: Widely penetrating the illicit drug market only in the last decade, fentanyl is now the leading cause of overdose deaths nationwide, killing more than 70,000 people last year, far more than heroin, painkiller pills, cocaine or methamphetamines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Smuggled by Mexican drug cartels, the drug was first sold as powder in the eastern U.S., supplanting heroin, and is now found widely in counterfeit pills pressed to resemble painkillers such as oxycodone, in western states. These fake pills figure in the deaths of celebrities such as Prince and Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs, and there is a great deal of concern in public health circles that they are driving the remarkable increase in U.S. drug overdose deaths, which have more than doubled since 2015.
Misinformation: An irresistible moral panic
Warnings about tainted candy, razor blades and pins hidden in Halloween goodies have circulated for decades in the U.S. Likewise, drug scares from authorities have been part of the country’s popular culture for more than a century, from the yellow peril of Chinese opium eaters in the early 20th century and the “Reefer Madness” era of the 1930s to the DEA’s 2016 warning that mere skin contact with fentanyl could trigger overdoses. The latter led to episodes of mass hysteria in police officers and sent at least one man to prison in Ohio.
Together, the two traditions make for an irresistible moral panic. Medical anthropologists who study illicit drug use told Grid they see little reason for people to give brightly colored fentanyl pills counterfeited to look like painkillers to children. “Could someone please explain the drug dealer business plan that involves giving away something deadly to little kids disguised as candy?” asked neuroscience writer Maia Szalavitz, author of “Undoing Drugs: How Harm Reduction is Changing the Future of Drugs and Addiction,” on Twitter.
Drug users have no reason to give away expensive drugs they are themselves addicted to on Halloween. And drug dealers, who are presumably in business to make money, have no reason to give away expensive drugs for free.
Politics: Midterms are coming
With America’s anti-immigrant movement a reliable driver of Republican voters in the Trump era, a scare story about Mexicans poisoning children to hook them on drugs appeals to Republican politicians like McDaniel, and Fox News hosts, who are trying to get those voters to the polls in the week after Halloween. For Democrats like Schumer, who is trying to defuse that sentiment, decrying rainbow fentanyl as resembling candy, while coming out in favor of a $290 million bill to fund more overdose response teams, is a sensible political response to the scare, rather than denying its existence.
The two parties have long split on whether counteracting the illegal drug supply — in this case the Mexican cartels — or lowering demand for illegal drugs from people should be the response to the overdose crisis. And that is how the political response to rainbow fentanyl has played out: Republican senators complained of “open borders” and moved to designate Mexican cartels as terrorist organizations, a law enforcement response against the suppliers of illicit drugs. Schumer’s overdose response teams instead would focus on domestic overdose and drug trend surveillance, trying to move users into recovery and warn communities about spikes in fentanyl in the illicit drug supply.
The Biden administration has moved to shift U.S. drug policy more toward the demand side, supporting harm-reduction measures that promote safe drug use over imprisonment — for the first time ever on the federal level. This has already generated pushback from Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who in February decried a $30 million federal grant to pay for treatment referrals, disease tests, condoms and vaccinations, as well as safe smoking kits, as paying for “crack pipes” sent to Black communities. The White House explained the kits, in reality, contain alcohol swabs, lip balm and other materials meant to reduce the transmission of HIV and hepatitis.
Health: The overdose crisis
The advent of rainbow fentanyl pills in the drug supply is a sign of fentanyl achieving near-ubiquity in the illicit drug market. Brightly colored heroin and cocaine have been sold for decades in illegal drug markets, a result of impurities or even of branding efforts. Rainbow fentanyl, like those past colored drugs, is a very small part of the illegal drug market. And seizures of rainbow fentanyl stocks, such as 15,000 pills in a recent New York case, are minuscule in size compared against the estimated 80 million fentanyl-tainted pills faked to look like real painkillers that were sold last year in the U.S.
In some ways, the colored pills are safer because they tell users right away that they contain fentanyl, said Jon Zibbell, a senior public health scientist at RTI International, a nonprofit institute headquartered in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. The danger of a drug scare over Halloween fentanyl, he added, is that it might discredit urgent messages about fentanyl in counterfeit pills and street drugs, which is what is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year.
Long before the appearance of fentanyl, overdose deaths have been growing exponentially in the U.S. for decades, an epidemic driven by job loss, mental illness, child abuse and frayed community ties. Fentanyl has now accelerated overdose deaths in this crisis both because it is so potent, 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin by weight, and because of its variability in the illicit drug supply: Where 2 to 3 milligrams of the drug in a pill can kill someone, the DEA has reported measuring doses ranging from 0.2 to 5.1 milligrams in seized pills.
Fentanyl’s takeover is in line with “Prohibition’s Iron Law” in drug policy, as described by Northeastern University’s Leo Beletsky, which predicts that criminalizing an addictive substance will lead to it inevitably invading the illegal market in evermore potent and easier-to-smuggle form, just as bathtub gin replaced beer during Prohibition. Effectively, Obama administration efforts a decade ago to limit illegal drug market diversions of opioid painkillers, which were killing nearly 15,000 people a year from overdoses in 2011, spurred addicted people to turn instead to heroin, which was killing about the same number of people a year by 2016, and finally for cartels to turn to fentanyl to meet this demand, a change in the market that now kills even more people.
Made in underground labs in Mexico, illicit fentanyl is now mostly smuggled in small amounts by car (about 1 million a day cross at the U.S.-Mexico border), making interdiction unrealistic, according to the Rand Corporation’s Bryce Pardo. Until the U.S. tackles the wider epidemic of adverse childhood experiences and economic dysfunction blamed for “diseases of despair” that include drug addiction and lead to overdoses, the country will likely continue to see steadily increasing overdose deaths, and more drug scares, as evermore potent synthetic drugs enter the illegal drug market to supplant fentanyl.
Trends in seizures of powders and pills containing illicit fentanyl in the United States, 2018 through 2021 (Drug and Alcohol Dependence)
Today’s fentanyl crisis: Prohibition’s Iron Law, revisited (International Journal of Drug Policy)
How Two Mexican Drug Cartels Came to Dominate America’s Fentanyl Supply (Wall Street Journal)
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.