In August, the Drug Enforcement Agency issued a warning titled “Brightly-Colored Fentanyl Used to Target Young Americans.” The report described the multi-colored drugs as “a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults.”
There really have been multi-colored fentanyl pills seized throughout the country this year, although it’s highly questionable whether it’s an entirely new trend, whether rainbow fentanyl is any more dangerous than the mono-colored version of the drug, and whether the drugs are really targeted to kids.
In the following weeks, numerous law enforcement entities, as well as politicians of both parties, spoke out forcefully against the new scourge of rainbow fentanyl. This was also the case in the media, especially Fox News.
The chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, appeared on Fox News in September and specifically tied the problem to Halloween.
“Just last month, 2,000 pounds of fentanyl came across our border, that could kill 500 million people,” McDaniel said in the interview. “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?”
Later in September, another Fox News segment questioned whether kids, amid the rainbow fentanyl threat, should even be trick-or-treating this year at all. And in early October, a group of Republican senators issued a pre-Halloween public service announcement warning of it.
“The powerful drug cartels are coming after your kids, your neighbors, your students, your family members, and your friends. No one is spared as fake pills laced with fentanyl are beginning to look like candy in an effort to lure young Americans,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) said in the PSA.
One TV station in Florida, citing the “threat,” suggested that trick-or-treaters attend “trunk or treat” events, including at police stations.
However, Halloween has now come and gone, and according to one report, it was blessedly free of any bad incidents involving rainbow fentanyl in candy baskets.
“Halloween is over and it looks like no one got fentanyl candy after all,” The Appeal reported Tuesday.
“So far, there has not been a single credible report of a child actually finding or ingesting ‘rainbow fentanyl’ in their Halloween hauls. According to a search of news headlines this morning, the police officers, politicians, and media outlets that pushed this narrative appear to have abandoned the story and moved on, without acknowledging the role they played in whipping up a clearly false panic in the first place,” the report said.
There was, however, never much reason to suspect that rainbow fentanyl was a real threat on Halloween. And the reason for that is that panics about tainted Halloween candy have a long, long tradition of not being true.
Professor Joel Best at the University of Delaware has been studying the myth of “Halloween sadism” for more than forty years and has often been interviewed by media outlets. He acknowledged, in a recent interview with The Atlantic, that this one felt different.
Best called the rainbow fentanyl panic, especially in relation to Halloween candy, “ridiculous.”
“This is the first time since I’ve been doing this—going on 40 years now—that you’ve had semi-visible people—U.S. senators and people like that—promoting a specific concern,” Best told The Atlantic.
“I don’t think it’s going to make anybody pass out rainbow fentanyl. If you think about it, that’s nuts, because what’s the business plan? Drug dealers aren’t going to give away their drugs. And if they are going to give them away to try and attract business, they aren’t going to give them away to elementary-school students. What are they gonna do, get their milk money?”
Even the Martin County Chief Deputy quoted in the WPTV story doubted that drugs were being given away for free.
"Fentanyl costs money. Drug dealers aren’t just going to take fentanyl and arbitrarily put in the bags and send it out on the street for kids. What we do worry about is our high school kids and college age kids going to parties, being exposed to something that’s candy-like, but is actually fentanyl," Chief Deputy John Budensiek told the station.
Others were skeptical about the reports from the start.
“New crime panic just dropped,” Elizabeth Nolan Brown said on Twitter in reaction to the first DEA report. “Nothing about it makes sense. (Who thinks drug cartels want to addict small children? How would that even work? If a kid did take it thinking it was candy, how would they get more? Who thinks young people are only not doing drugs b/c the pills aren't colorful enough? Etc Etc).”
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.