Rainbow fentanyl: A colorful but deadly addition to the opioid epidemic


Drug Enforcement Administration

A variety of rainbow fentanyl pills resemble candy, making its looks deceiving to adolescents and children.

Camilla Lewis, Writer

A note to the reader: The name of the Ventura Unified School District nurse, Robbin, is a fake name created to ensure anonymity.

Spreading across the United States, a new trend in the opioid crisis called rainbow fentanyl is being mass-produced and distributed by major Mexican drug cartels like the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and the Sinaloa Cartel. While the drug, which—from pills that resemble candy, to chunks that have no difference in appearance from sidewalk chalk—was being quickly distributed, it was only on Sept. 23, 2022 that the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was informed about rainbow fentanyl. Now, in 21 states, it has been taken into custody by the police, showcasing to the public just how quickly this new trend has spread. This new production and distribution of rainbow fentanyl can be looked at in many different ways: while some look at it as a way for drug cartels to attract young people towards addiction or to make it easier to smuggle, others think that it is just a way to be able to tell certain products from others.

The creation of rainbow fentanyl is being seen by the DEA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a possible way to attract adolescents towards addiction. These tactics that drug cartels are using in hopes to attract more profit can put teens and younger children into dangerous situations, as the bright colors can deceive them or make the pills look more appealing. The DEA suggests that parents talk with their kids about rainbow fentanyl and the dangers that come with it, since its looks can be deceiving. 

Meanwhile, Maya Doe Simkins—co-director of Remedy Alliance and co-founder of the Opioid Safety and Naloxone Network—disagrees, saying that instead of rainbow fentanyl being a ploy to attract kids, the different colors of rainbow fentanyl are actually meant to be able to tell certain products from others

The bright colors of rainbow fentanyl can even be seen as a way for drug traffickers to make smuggling fentanyl easier: by first glance, law enforcement officials may mistake rainbow fentanyl as candy or chalk, especially when drug traffickers are disguising them in containers made specifically for those products. 

When asked about how he feels about the mass production and distribution of rainbow fentanyl across the United States, Foothill Technology High School (Foothill Tech) parent Ryan Rosenthall said, “It’s awful! [It’s] getting harder and harder to identify… scary, as it only takes one pill to kill.” 

The dangers of fentanyl

Fentanyl is a synthetic drug meant to be a monitored prescription pain reliever for post-surgery and advanced cancer stages. When made illicitly, fentanyl can be very dangerous, especially when mixed with other drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. When asked about what fentanyl does to the body, Robbin, a Ventura Unified School District (VUSD) nurse, explained that “[Opioids] are CNS (central nervous system) depressants. Misuse of an [opioid] may cause a person to enter respiratory arrest, which in turn leads to cardiac arrest and death. Misuse of [opioids] also can lead to dependence, as [opioids] are highly addictive.”

Fentanyl is still considered the nation’s most lethal drug threat. In 2021, 107,622 people across the United States passed away due to drug overdoses, with 66 percent of the deaths being caused by a lethal dose of opioids such as illicit fentanyl. 

A lethal dose of fentanyl is compared to the tip of a pencil, highlighting how deadly it really is. (Drug Enforcement Administration)

Part of these overdoses has to do with the potency of drugs within the pill being taken. “What makes fentanyl special is its potency; two milligrams is enough to cause an overdose (that’s the equivalent of about 10 grains of salt),” Robbin explained. 

Being more potent than heroin by 50 times and more potent by morphine by 100 times, illegally made fentanyl is very dangerous. It lacks other pharmaceutical ingredients and doesn’t get to be tested in a lab, making the specific potency of each fentanyl pill unknown. While there have been some ideas spreading that certain colors of rainbow fentanyl pills are more potent than others, the DEA has made no confirmation that this is true, as there has been no discovery that rainbow fentanyl has any differences from other illicit fentanyl besides its colors. 

When consumed, some of the effects that fentanyl can have on the body are nausea, euphoria, respiratory depression, confusion, relaxation and sedation. These symptoms may vary depending on the user’s tolerance of the drug. “People who use [opioids] regularly build a tolerance. People who don’t use [opioids] regularly are called ‘[opioid]-naïve.’ An ‘[opioid]-naïve’ person is much more likely to overdose, especially if they don’t know what or how much they’re taking,” Robbin said. 

This reflects onto high rates of overdoses, as people will take other drugs not knowing that they have been laced with fentanyl. “I think the biggest danger is when a person takes fentanyl unwittingly […] lots of kids smoke weed pens and use Xanax (Alprazolam) recreationally. Both of these can be made more potent with fentanyl,” Robbin explained, adding that, “This year I’ve had encounters with seven kids who were admitted taking Xanax […] laced with fentanyl, aka ‘Green Hulks.’”

When speaking with Foothill Tech parent Jeanette Brossia about how she feels about drugs being laced with fentanyl, she noted how it is “very scary, because there are several instances where you hear of somebody,” like a high school or college-aged youth, saying, “‘Oh, I am gonna, you know, smoke some weed or something’ and it’s been laced with it […] and they’re dead. It’s like they weren’t on board with it […] they thought they were doing something that was fairly harmless and unbeknownst to them.”

When it comes to a situation of a possible overdose, it is good to have Narcan, a form of onsite treatment for an opioid overdose, on hand. Narcan is a nose spray that acts as a guard in your brain to block entry of harmful substances, helping to bring back the person’s breathing. It will only work for opioid-related cases, however, and cannot be used for other types of drug overdoses. Schools are now even being supplied with Narcan since opioid overdoses can happen anywhere and anytime, especially due to the fact that other drugs are being laced with fentanyl and even created with a variety of colors. 

With rainbow fentanyl on the rise and illicit fentanyl still being laced in other drugs, the urgency to educate the American public about the nation’s opioid epidemic as it continues to increase. While some illegal fentanyl comes in brighter colors compared to others, don’t be fooled, as both are very dangerous. If you happen to encounter fentanyl in any form, whether it be a pill, powder or block, and no matter its deceivingly bright colors, do not handle it and immediately call 911. For more information, visit https://www.dea.gov/onepill.

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