Itn late August, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a warning to the public to look out for an “alarming emerging trend”: colorful pill and powder versions of the potent opioid fentanyl, known as “rainbow fentanyl.” “This trend appears to be a new method used by drug cartels to sell highly addictive and potentially deadly fentanyl made to look like candy to children and young people,” the agency said.
While fentanyl does threaten young people’s lives—especially if they’re not aware they’re taking it—some drug experts caution that focusing just on the rainbow version may obscure other equally dangerous types of the drug. Here’s what to know about rainbow fentanyl, and how to protect yourself and your children.
Focusing on rainbow fentanyl might be misleading
Illicitly manufactured fentanyl is very dangerous in any color, and some drug experts worry that there’s too much focus on the risks posed by rainbow fentanyl. “Kids are getting pills, and some of them are dying from them. This is absolutely a distraction,” says Dean Shold, co-founder of the non-profit FentCheck, which provides fentanyl test strips and drug education.
Another issue is that the DEA hasn’t revealed evidence that the colors are intended specifically to attract children. Fentanyl has come in colors for years, and some research has found that color is one of the ways drug users identify illicit drugs’ potency. “It’s actually keeping them safe, because they know what they’re getting for each color,” says Jon E. Zibbell, a senior public health analyst at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute promoting science-based solutions for public-health issues.
A prescription pill, such as Xanax and oxycodone is marketed to teens. However, young users of drugs might not be aware that they contain fentanyl. Dr. Scott E. Hadland at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, is a psychiatrist and pediatrician. Illicit drug supplies in America are very dangerous. This is because drugs that were sold under the name of a drug can actually contain other dangerous substances such as animal tranquilizer xylazine or benzodiazepines. Due to the combination effects of drug, and the potential for overdose from excessive opioid dosages, this randomness increases the risk of overdose.
Hadland worries that multi-colored fentanyl could make it more “interesting or exciting” to young people. But, he says, “fentanyl is already everywhere in the market. I don’t know that this is going to be some new thing that brings in teens to use who had not previously been using.”
Fentanyl is already a danger to children
The number of overdose deaths among U.S. 14-18-year-olds has increased significantly in the past few years. According to an analysis, it rose from 490 in 2019 and to approximately 950 by 2020. JAMAIt was April. An increasing number of teens overdoses involve fentanyl. In 2021, the drug was implicated in over two-thirds (or more) of all deaths from overdoses.
It’s also more common for manufacturers to press fentanyl to look like prescription drugs, says Joseph Palamar, an associate professor at New York University Langone who studies drug-use epidemiology. To resemble oxycodone, many colored Fentanyl pills have blue labels that are pressed with M30. According to a published study in Alcoholism and drug dependence Palamar and his colleagues discovered that in 2018, the amount of fentanyl taken in pills rose to 13.8%, and then to 29.2% by 2021. “I’d warn [my children] that illegally obtained pills can contain fentanyl, and that exposure to even a small amount can be enough to kill someone,” he says.
What to do for your children’s safety
It’s essential to store all drugs where young children Can’t reach them, says Palamar. “I’m not sure if manufacturers or dealers intend for these new pills to attract kids, but what worries me is that they can attract kids,” says Palamar. “What worries me is if a kid’s parent, sibling, or friend leaves one of these fentanyl pills around and then someone—a kid or an adult—eats it thinking it’s candy.”
Hadland says that teens can be protected by having an open conversation about illicit drug dangers with their parents. He says that teens should be aware that illicitly obtained drugs may include fentanyl. Even a tiny amount can cause death.
Parents should also consider keeping the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan on hand, which can save someone’s life. “I think of it like a fire extinguisher,” says Hadland. “It’s the thing you always want to have in your home but never want to actually need to use.”
Hadland says that some teenagers resort to illicit drug use in order to manage their addictions or mental health disorders. Parents should be aware of these signs and alert them. For instance, teens often use alcohol, marijuana, or nicotine before turning to riskier drugs; it’s especially concerning, he says, if a teen uses substances frequently. You may also notice difficulties in school, changes to their relationships or decline in performance. Prevention is better than cure. Make sure your children get support for mental-health issues.
“I think conversations often are quite alarmist: ‘Look at this new drug! Imagine if this were to make it into your community!’” says Hadland. “We also need to remember that many of the young people who use these substances are struggling with mental-health problems or addiction that are going completely unaddressed. And we need to make sure we’re providing resources for that.”
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