Rainbow fentanyl has been in the news quite a bit in recent weeks, ever since the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) issued a warning in late August.
“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 warning. “The men and women of the DEA are relentlessly working to stop the trafficking of rainbow fentanyl and defeat the Mexican drug cartels that are responsible for the vast majority of the fentanyl that is being trafficked in the United States.”
Local news outlets have been all over the rainbow fentanyl story ever since, making big news out of any police seizure of multi-colored drugs, whether or not they are actually the color of the rainbow.
In September, the chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, went on Fox News and declared that “just last month, 2,000 pounds of fentanyl came across our border, that could kill 500 million people.” She added that “Every mom in the country is worried, what if this gets into my kid’s Halloween basket? The rainbow fentanyl. What if my teenager gets this.”
However, there has been some pushback about the rainbow fentanyl worries, with some calling the talk about the drug “moral panic.” It’s also not clear if rainbow fentanyl is any more or less dangerous than other types of the same drug.
“There is no evidence—none whatsoever—that these pills are being peddled to the playground set,” a Reason magazine analysis in September said. “Fentanyl is not just a deadly drug: It’s a scourge upon the land. But candy-munching kids aren’t the target, and scaring parents into thinking otherwise is a waste of the DEA’s time.”
Joel Best, a professor at the University of Delaware who has been studying the tainted Halloween-candy myth for decades, wrote about rainbow fentanyl for PBS.org. He noted that crime stories in September are often reflected in worries about what will happen at Halloween the following month.
“One obvious hole in these concerns is that drugs tend to cost more than candy – marijuana edibles, for example, run somewhere in the neighborhood of a dollar or two per dose or more,” Best wrote.
“Fentanyl is considerably more expensive. It is not unreasonable to wonder just what a fentanyl dealer’s overarching goal might be if in passing the drug off as candy. The suggestion that a school-age kid would go from accidental user of fentanyl to a paying addict is far-fetched.”
He added that this one has more mainstream backing than most.
“What seems new about describing rainbow fentanyl as a Halloween danger is the willingness of important political figures and news media outlets to spread the warnings. Most past claims about Halloween sadism lack such prominent spokespeople,” Best wrote.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.