- Increasing reports of “rainbow fentanyl” are growing nationwide – including in Arizona, Oregon, California and the D.C. region.
- Law enforcement officials suggest that colorful pills and powdered forms of the opioid could be marketed to kids. Others say it could be to distinguish products.
- Fentanyl is extremely potent, health experts warn. Two milligrams can cause a fatal overdose.
Reports of “rainbow fentanyl” are growing nationwide, and law enforcement suggests the colorful, candy-looking opioid could target young people. Other experts say the colors are mostly likely added to distinguish the product.
Over the last week, seizures of colored fentanyl have made headlines in Arizona, Oregon, California and Washington, D.C. On Wednesday, for example, border patrol agents said they found more than 15,000 rainbow fentanyl pills at Arizona’s Nogales Port of Entry – following 250,000 fentanyl pills that were seized at the same port Tuesday, some of which were multi-colored.
During a search warrant by Oregon law enforcement earlier this week, 800 fentanyl pills and four grams of multi-colored, powdered fentanyl were also found in a Portland residence, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday.
“Deputies are particularly concerned about rainbow fentanyl getting into the hands of young adults or children, who mistake the drug for something else, such as candy or a toy, or those who may be willing to try the drug due to its playful coloring,” the sheriff’s office said in a news release. “The powdered fentanyl found during this investigation resembles the color and consistency of sidewalk chalk.”
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While many are encountering rainbow fentanyl for the first time, it’s not new. Jennifer Lofland, field intelligence manager for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s D.C. Division, told Fox 5 News that pills have been seized around the D.C. region, for example, for at least the last 18 months.
What is rainbow fentanyl?
Rainbow fentanyl is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, that’s been dyed various colors.
Pharmaceutical fentanyl is an opioid prescribed for severe pain, including advanced cancer treatment, the CDC notes. But with these non-medical grade (or “illicitly manufactured“) versions of fentanyl, the levels of potency are difficult to determine, and vary significantly.
However, powdered fentanyl is typically more potent than other forms, the Multnomah County Health Department noted after the county sheriff’s office reported a seizure this week of rainbow fentanyl in Portland.
“We are seeing more powdered fentanyl that is dyed in various colors. The strength can vary but is typically stronger than pressed pills,” Multnomah County Health’s harm reduction supervisor Kelsi Junge said in a release.
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“To be clear, all fentanyl purchased on the street is deadly, no matter the color, shape, size, or form,” Placer County District Attorney Morgan Gire said in a Wednesday release in light of reports of rainbow fentanyl in California.
A lot remains unknown about rainbow fentanyl. The colorful powders and pills can also be laced with other drugs.
“Some of the multi-colored pills that we’ve been testing in our labs recently, particularly a recent batch that appeared to be children’s chewable vitamins, were tested by our lab as containing both fentanyl and methamphetamine,” Lofland told Fox 5, adding that the DEA’s D.C. Division has also found animal tranquilizers in some pills. “And so that is just an added layer of danger.”
While these law enforcement agencies suggest that kids will be targeted with rainbow fentanyl, others say colors could be added to distinguish products. It’s also unlikely for many kids to have enough money to purchase these products, some experts note.
“There is not a lot of money in targeting kids and this idea that drug sellers are coming for our children is a very old one that’s been washed and repeated over the decades,” Claire Zagorski, program coordinator at the Pharmacy Addictions Research and Medicine Program at the University of Texas at Austin, told Vice News.
Dangers of fentanyl, surging overdoses in opioid crisis
Fentanyl, generally found in liquid or powder form, and fentanyl-laced drugs are extremely potent – as the addictive opioid is up to 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Even the smallest of doses can be deadly.
“It only takes 2 milligrams of fentanyl – about the weight of a few grains of salt – to cause a fatal overdose,” Multnomah County health officials warned.
The most common drugs involved in overdose deaths today are fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, according to the CDC, with about 150 deaths every day.
The surging fentanyl overdose deaths in recent years have exacerbated the ongoing opioid epidemic.
More:More than 107,000 Americans died from overdoses last year. Fentanyl is behind most deaths.
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If you’re unsure whether or not a drug has fentanyl in it, the CDC highly recommends the use of fentanyl test strips. In the event of an overdose, health experts also stress the importance of using naloxone (or “Narcan”), a medication used to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose, if available. If you or someone you know uses fentanyl, other opioids or drugs that could be laced, experts recommend carrying multiple doses of naloxone.
“Anyone that intends to use powdered fentanyl should follow principles of harm reduction by going slow, not using when you are alone and ensuring that someone has Narcan,” Junge stated.