Tuesday, May 30, 2023

'Rainbow fentanyl'

by By Aubrey Whelan, The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS
| October 28, 2022 5:09 PM

PHILADELPHIA — As Halloween approaches, the federal government has been warning parents of a spooky new danger: Drug cartels are using rainbow-colored pills and powders that look like candy to introduce children to highly addictive synthetic opioids. One taste could kill.

The Drug Enforcement Administration’s press releases in recent months have warned that drug dealers are using the pills’ appealing bright colors to entice children and young adults into addiction. A slew of news outlets and national legislators have seized on the idea, with some advising parents to check their children’s Halloween candy, just in case.

But local and national experts say that while fentanyl is a serious concern for drug users — especially those who aren’t used to opioids — drug dealers aren’t targeting children or secreting fentanyl into their candy.

“Drugs are expensive. No one is going to be giving away free drugs,” said Jen Shinefeld, a field epidemiologist with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

Amid the uproar, DEA officials have clarified that they do not believe trick-or-treaters are at risk from rainbow fentanyl. But experts fear the confusion is obscuring the real dangers of fentanyl, now the leading cause of overdose deaths in the Philadelphia region and nationally.

Cheaper and easier to buy than heroin and prescription pain pills, fentanyl has become the dominant opioid in the country’s drug supply. It is undetectable to the naked eye, and those who have never used drugs before are often unaware that it can kill on the first use.

Instead of worrying about children coming across fentanyl while trick-or-treating, experts say parents should speak openly and plainly with their children about drug use and staying safe.

“When things go unspoken or unsaid, you miss an opportunity to educate or inform about what your kid’s going through,” said Sheila Vakharia, the deputy director of the Department of Research and Academic Engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit that advocates against punitive drug policy.

In August, the DEA issued a news release calling rainbow fentanyl “a new method used by drug cartels to sell highly addictive and potentially deadly fentanyl made to look like candy to children and young people.”

Brightly colored pills have long been a marketing tactic for dealers to differentiate their products from others — especially with drugs like ecstasy, popular at parties for its euphoric highs.

“This isn’t a new phenomenon,” said Alex Krotulski, a forensic toxicologist who serves as the associate director of the Center for Forensic Science Research and Education, which tests street drugs in Philadelphia.

His lab hasn’t seen many brightly colored fentanyl pills in the city.

When Philadelphia health officials did encounter colorful powdered opioids in local drug markets earlier this year, they deemed the color an innocuous addition, likely aimed at helping adult drug users differentiate between products known as dope — a catchall term for powders sold as heroin or fentanyl.

“There was a rumor, for a second, that purple dope was the strongest, and then it became a marketing thing on the corners,” said Shinefeld, the city field epidemiologist.

Fentanyl is a hidden danger in the local drug supply, but not because dealers are selling it as counterfeit candy. Philadelphia’s illicit dope has long been contaminated by fentanyl — and, more recently, the animal tranquilizer xylazine, which causes intense withdrawals, serious lesions, and hard-to-reverse overdoses.

And most of the fentanyl pills that Philadelphia’s field experts are finding on the street are designed to look like legitimate pharmaceutical opioid painkillers.

Known as “pressed pills” or “pressies,” these counterfeit opioids could fool people who aren’t used to taking opioids, or who are trying them for the first time. Because they appear to be pharmaceutical pills, they might seem safer.

In 2021, a study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence found counterfeit fentanyl pills made up 29.2% of drug seizures in the United States — up from just 13.8% of seizures in 2018.

“Parents need to have conversations with young people about what’s available and what they’re exposed to — and the difference between what they’re told and what they’re sold,” Vakharia said.

Recent Headlines