Is 'rainbow fentanyl' a threat to your kids this Halloween? Experts say no
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In this country, people are preparing for what is supposed to be a happy time. Halloween is coming, which you can tell by asking my kids or seeing the 9-foot skeleton on the street not far from my house. The Drug Enforcement Administration, though, is issuing a warning at this time, a warning that drug dealers are marketing fentanyl pills that look like candy. This warning has gone viral on social media, but some drug policy experts doubt it. Here's NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: The Drug Enforcement Administration has been issuing terrifying alerts for weeks that bright-colored fentanyl pills have been spotted in a growing number of states. The DEA says they've identified a deliberate new marketing scheme by Mexican cartels and street dealers who want the pills to, quote, "look like candy to children and young people." Here's the DEA's top official, Anne Milgram, speaking to NBC News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NIGHTLY NEWS WITH LESTER HOLT")
ANNE MILGRAM: It looks like candy. And, in fact, some of the drug traffickers have nicknamed it Sweet Tarts, Skittles.
MANN: The DEA also warned of fentanyl smuggled in a box of Lego toys and fentanyl dyed to look like the chalk children use to color sidewalks. These alerts didn't mention Halloween, but in an interview on Fox, Milgram was asked whether parents should worry about candy gathered by kids trick or treating.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICA'S NEWSROOM")
MILGRAM: We have not seen any connection to Halloween. And I want to be...
MANN: Drug policy experts contacted by NPR agree there's no new fentanyl threat this Halloween. But many are also skeptical of the DEA's original warning. They don't believe Mexican drug cartels and street dealers have launched any new campaign targeting children.
NABARUN DASGUPTA: So I don't see any evidence that the DEA has produced that supports that conjecture.
MANN: Nabarun Dasgupta is a researcher at the University of North Carolina. His lab tests illegally manufactured opioid pills collected from across the U.S. Dasgupta says colored pills, like the ones highlighted in the DEA warnings, are on the streets, but it's nothing new.
DASGUPTA: We get them almost on a daily basis. We see pinks and purples, yellow, green, red, aqua, fuchsia.
MANN: Street drug experts contacted by NPR say traffickers have long used bright colors in their products for reasons that have nothing to do with children. Dr. Sheila Vakharia is with an addiction think tank called the Drug Policy Alliance.
SHEILA VAKHARIA: We do know that people who sell drugs often color the pills or the powders that they sell, often as a way to distinguish their product from other products that are on the street.
MANN: Drug experts point out fentanyl is incredibly powerful, often deadly. Marketing the pills deliberately to children would be incredibly risky. The legal penalties for dealing drugs to kids are severe. They also say really young kids who might be drawn to pills that look like candy typically lack access to the kind of cash that makes for good repeat customers. Vakharia describes this alarm as a distraction. She thinks the bigger public safety threat is dealers coloring and shaping pills to look like they come from a pharmacy.
VAKHARIA: Oftentimes, colors are also used to sometimes mimic legitimate prescription medications.
MANN: NPR sent questions about this to the DEA and asked repeatedly for an interview or for evidence to support the claim drug dealers are intentionally using candy-like fentanyl to hook children. The DEA sent a statement saying their investigations show traffickers are targeting young people, in part by using social media. But they declined to offer specifics. Everyone contacted for this story agrees fentanyl is a danger. Overdoses hit record levels in the U.S. last year with a sharp rise among people age 15 to 34.
Brandon del Pozo, an addiction researcher at Brown University, says fears about this very real crisis have sometimes given rise to inaccurate information and false alarms.
BRANDON DEL POZO: Fentanyl is a very potent drug that's causing a lot of overdose death, but it's taken on a mythical life of its own.
MANN: Del Pozo says drug scares that aren't based on good data matter because they distract attention from the need for better health care and addiction treatment.
DEL POZO: We're forgoing, like, good, solid, basic public health and safety information that could be used to reverse overdoses, link people to treatment and save lives.
MANN: Again, there's no evidence of any heightened risk from fentanyl linked to this Halloween. The Food and Drug Administration does offer a list of safety tips every October, recommending kids only accept candy that's commercially wrapped and advising parents to examine sweets for any signs of tampering.
Brian Mann, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.