Day 6·Q&A

Rainbow fentanyl warnings ahead of Halloween are misleading families: toxicologist

Despite warnings from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, toxicologist Dr. Ryan Marino isn’t concerned about Halloween trick-or-treaters being targeted by drug dealers with rainbow fentanyl.

U.S. DEA says drug cartels are targeting kids with colourful synthetic opioid pills

A pile of rainbow fentanyl pills.
The DEA says "brightly-coloured fentanyl is being seized in multiple forms, including pills, powder, and blocks that resemble sidewalk chalk." (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration )

Despite warnings from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Dr. Ryan Marino isn't concerned about Halloween trick-or-treaters being targeted by drug dealers with rainbow fentanyl. 

Marino, who's a medical toxicologist and addiction medicine specialist in Cleveland, says giving away drugs for free isn't a good business model for traffickers, and that kids don't have the financial independence to be reliable customers. 

In August, the DEA advised the public of an "alarming trend" of drug cartels pushing colourful fentanyl, made to look like candy, targeting kids. 

Now, a group of U.S. Republican senators have used the report as the basis for a public service announcement video warning parents about the drug leading up to Halloween. 

"Rainbow fentanyl – fentanyl pills and powder that come in a variety of bright colours, shapes, and sizes – is a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults," said DEA administrator Anne Milgram in an Aug. 30 news release. 

Marino is also an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and has been studying misinformation surrounding fentanyl for the past five years. He says there's a stigma behind what he calls "Halloween drug sadism, myths" and that it's deeply rooted in society.

"There's so much [misinformation] about drugs and a lot of it does seem to be related to some kind of political aims and moral panics," he said.

Marino refers to the August DEA report, and subsequent political cries to parents, as "fearmongering" and "propaganda."

He spoke to CBC Radio's Day 6, and here's part of that conversation with host Saroja Coelho.

Can you describe what rainbow fentanyl is? 

The phrase is essentially kind of a made up construct that did not exist prior to a couple of months ago. It came about because of this warning that different coloured fake pills being sold on the street – that usually contain fentanyl – are allegedly being marketed or targeted towards children, teens and adolescents. 

To be clear, you're not denying that this exists, but given the research you've done and read, how accurate is the claim that rainbow fentanyl is being marketed to kids? 

There is no validity to that claim so far. There is no corroboration or substantiation that that is happening in multiple colours of drugs. More specifically, of these pills that are sold on the street that do end up a lot of times containing fentanyl, there are lots of different theories behind why the colours are added. 

Most likely, these are supposed to look like actual pharmaceutical drugs, which we know come in different colours as well. There are probably some adults out there who like their drugs to have a colour to them rather than just being kind of a grainy pressed powder. 

Rainbow fentanyl shown in a plastic bag.
Rainbow fentanyl shown in a plastic bag. (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration/Multnomah County Sheriff)

Some look like your average Tylenol pill just in a different colour with no markings on it except that stripe down the middle. Others do appear to look like candy. Are those intended to appeal to kids? 

No, they are not. I think the most common thing that people are seeing are these pills. They are designed to look like actual pharmaceutical drugs. 

They come in many different colours and would not be sold in multiple different colours. It's not something new and it's not something that's been added specifically with children in mind or to target them. 

As we pull all of this apart, are children desirable customers for drug dealers? 

I think there's a lot of flaw in the logic behind this idea. 

If someone came home with loose pills at the bottom of their bag or bucket of Halloween candy, I don't think anyone would be eating those. But certainly even if they did, they wouldn't know where they come from. 

Not really a great business model there. And unfortunately for better or for worse, the dealing of drugs is a business.

Dr. Ryan Marino is a Cleveland emergency medicine physician and toxicologist.
Dr. Ryan Marino is a medical toxicologist and addiction medicine specialist in Cleveland. He also serves as an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. (Photo by Jeffrey Marino)

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has issued a warning about it being marketed to kids. Why would they do that? 

I do not know why but they have not put forth any evidence to substantiate this claim. It does not align with anything that myself and my colleagues have experienced. 

And certainly in talking to my patients – and people I know who use drugs, who are familiar with the kind of street drug market and trade – there's no evidence that this is going on whatsoever. 

I can only speculate that this is just kind of the latest moral panic around fentanyl. 

There seems to be a lot of political motivation here. I've definitely seen tweets, including from U.S. senators saying, 'you know, we need to be careful – Halloween could be a dangerous time.' 

One thing that I hear a lot, too, is just like, "why? What's the harm of people getting this message out and having increased fear of fentanyl?"

We know that there is a big problem with fentanyl overdoses and deaths, and particularly the street drug supply being contaminated with fentanyl, leading to this opioid overdose crisis that we've been experiencing for years now. 

But the problem is, with these moral panics, they distract from reality. In this case in particular, this seems to be, in my mind, at least an extension of a kind of longstanding drug stigma, where we just assume that people who use drugs are bad, and are out to get us. 

It also distracts the conversation from evidence-based measures and the kind of real public health investments that we could be having for this clickbait kind of a headline. 

What other ways does the misinformation around fentanyl hurt them? 

It distracts from good information. It keeps people uninformed … the main things that can empower people who use drugs to stay safe. Every little thing that can make it less toxic and keep people more safe makes a big difference. 

If I were to have a conversation with my teens, I would want them to know they could talk to me about if they were trying drugs or needed a kind of a safe place to go. I would want them to know where antidotes like Narcan [Naloxone] were available. 

The main thing to remember is drugs are expensive. No one is going to be giving away free drugs to kids on Halloween.- Dr. Ryan Marino, toxicologist and addiction medicine specialist 

So what you are saying is that there's no need to stop your kids from trick or treating? 

Halloween drugs, sadism, myths go back decades. I'm sure everyone has heard some sort of different variation of this. Fentanyl has been the one in recent years, but we saw a very similar thing with ecstasy within the past couple of decades. 

And certainly ecstasy tablets come oftentimes in multiple colours, that also look kind of like candy. There was a big fear as well that this was going to be snuck into people's Halloween candy given to kids. The same thing for marijuana edibles. 

None of these things have panned out. These have all been widely debunked. The main thing to remember is drugs are expensive. No one is going to be giving away free drugs to kids on Halloween. 


Produced by Laurie Allan. Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bob Becken

Journalist

Bob Becken is a producer for CBC Radio’s Digital team. Previously, he was an executive producer with CBC Windsor, and held broadcast and digital news director duties with Bell Media and Blackburn Media. Bob and the teams he has worked with have won several Radio Television Digital News Association awards, including five with CBC Windsor from 2019 to 2020. He also taught digital journalism at the University of Windsor. You can reach him at bob.becken@cbc.ca.

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