Traditionally, fentanyl is smuggled into the United States in the form of small, blue pills —  a deliberate choice by illicit drug makers to mimic the appearance of prescription medications. Lately, however, the illicit drug can often be found in bright purples, yellows, and pinks which the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has dubbed “rainbow fentanyl”. Just when you thought the opioid crisis couldn’t get worse, fentanyl has begun to look like candy.

Is Rainbow Fentanyl a New Threat? 

According to the DEA, yes. In August of 2022, the government agency publicly announced their concern about the new trend of rainbow fentanyl and how its candy-like appearance is intended to appeal to young people. Aside from the bright colors, the DEA believes rainbow fentanyl is aimed at children because of how it’s being smuggled into the country with an influx of drugs being transported in toy containers such as LEGOs or the form of sidewalk chalk. 

The announcement, having been made so close to Halloween, a time already subject to wild speculation of drug-laced candy, sent parents (and media outlets) into a frenzy about this new danger. Drug policy experts, however, aren’t fazed. 

According to them, the emergence of rainbow fentanyl isn’t all that new. Experts who track trends in illicit fentanyl use say that it has been around for years. And not only is rainbow fentanyl, not a brand-new drug scheme, but the colorful pills are not intended to target children either. 

They argue that fentanyl’s new colorful appearance is simply a method for dealers to better track and distinguish their products from others. Those who disagree with the assertion also argue that children simply don’t have access to cash to buy drugs in the first place.   

While drug and health officials may not agree on whether the emergence of colorful fentanyl pills is part of a sinister plan to ensnare children, both agree that this population faces a particular risk from rainbow fentanyl.

Curbing Drug Use Among Adolescents

Even if rainbow fentanyl isn’t a direct threat to kids, general drug use by those 18 and under is a problem in the country and a major concern of public health officials. Adolescence is a critical period of development for both the brain and the body and early drug use is associated with all sorts of problems, with higher likelihoods of…

  • Engaging in risky sexual behaviors
  • Dropping out of high school
  • Difficulty maintaining employment 
  • Family, social, and legal problems
  • Mental health problems
  • Lower-income

Earlier drug use also raises a person’s risk of developing a drug addiction later in life. One survey found that adults who tried marijuana for the first time at 14 or younger had drug addiction at six times the rates of those who didn’t try marijuana until they were 18 or older. According to research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), delaying when a child starts (or simply experiments) with drug use can significantly decrease their risk of developing a substance abuse issue in their later years. 

The good news is that rates of drug use among high schoolers have decreased significantly from 2021 (which skyrocketed during COVID-19 quarantine from 2020 to 2021). Alcohol remains the most commonly used drug by under-age children, followed by cannabis, and nicotine vaping. 

Use of narcotics, like fentanyl, is far less common and has decreased from 2.7% among 12 graders in 2019, to only 1.7% in 2022. However, though the frequency of use is lower, it’s easily the most dangerous. There’s been a surge in overdose deaths among 14-18-year-olds, an increase believed to be driven by illicit fentanyl, which is sold as counterfeit ADHD medications or benzodiazepines, or drugs that are contaminated with the powerful opioid. 

Recognizing Signs of Teen Drug Addiction

Even though rainbow fentanyl may not be part of a greater ploy to target kids, it’s clear that drug use among teens is an issue that parents, teachers, and policymakers need to continue to be mindful of. Recognizing drug addiction during the turbulent time that is puberty can be challenging, however, here are some common signs to look for:

  • Loss of interest in activities 
  • Hanging out with different people
  • Breaking the rules, getting in trouble more frequently
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Bloody or watery eyes

If you have a loved one, young or old, struggling with fentanyl addiction or other substances, you can get free help, advice, and support at Narcotics Anonymous. Find NA meetings near you and get help today.