Rise in rainbow fentanyl: Are children at risk?

Mia Fessel, Staff writer

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is warning the public about a fentanyl pill in the illicit drug market that is supposedly being targeted towards kids and young adults. In a press release on August 30, 2022, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said, “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.” At first glance, the candy-looking pills appear to target a younger crowd. But are the pills really the big problem? Or is it what’s in the pills that is so concerning?

For the past eight years, America has experienced a fentanyl poisoning epidemic—due to its potency and lack of regulation, overdoses have become inevitable. Fentanyl didn’t enter the market as a party drug. Instead, it came in as an adulterant in the opioid supply and has also been widely found in molly, cocaine and the general party drug supply, according to UCSF researchers. Adulterants like fentanyl are being secretly mixed in with other drugs, which saves drug cartels money during the drug-making process and increases customer addiction. According to the California Department of Public Health, ​​fentanyl-related overdose deaths increased by 625 percent in only two years for individuals ages 10-19 in California. 

In an interview with The Urban Legend, Dr. Dan Ciccarone, a professor at UCSF and national expert on drug addiction, said, “U.S. medicine and U.S. pharmacological entities do not make fentanyl-containing pills.” Ciccarone noted that all fentanyl-containing pills are illegitimate mimics of real pharmaceutical ones. “The only colored fentanyl pill on the illicit market that we have had time to properly research is a blue colored Percocet, containing oxycodone if it’s legitimate,” he said.

This blue colored Percocet is known as a Perc 30, and is the only well-known and well-researched pill that has been mass counterfeited, according to Harm Reduction Journal researchers. Prior to the emergence of rainbow fentanyl, there were other colorful pills on the market. The appearance of these previously seen colored pills sparked a debate over what has driven drug cartels to color the pills this way. “Either it [signifies] a different dealer, or in some cases…a different type of fentanyl,” Ciccarone said. While some of these other pills are disappearing from the market, this assertion can still be applied to rainbow fentanyl. 

While it is possible that the DEA’s claim that rainbow fentanyl is purposefully targeting children is correct, there have not been any conclusive studies done to prove so. However, this is not to discredit the already known risks kids have been subjected to. Jenn Epstein, Urban’s health teacher, explained ways kids could be exposed to laced drugs. “I’ve heard about people buying pills on Snapchat and things like that.” While she doesn’t know how frequently this occurs, it is a major concern considering the platform’s popularity with younger audiences.

Generally, people should avoid rainbow fentanyl, and Ciccarone believes they should more broadly avoid all street pills at the moment. “No matter how good-looking the pill is [or] what color it is, it could be a proper color, it could be white…it could look like a proper pharmaceutical, you can’t trust it.” 

“We do have Narcan on campus,” Epstein said. Narcan is an overdose reversal drug. “We aren’t yet trained [in using it], but we are working on doing training for adults and for students.” There are also many harm reduction resources available to the public, including for Urban students. There are many places to get fentanyl detecting pill testing strips in the immediate area, such as the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic and all needle exchange locations throughout the city.