A row of colorful pills lined up along a pink arrow.
Illustration: PGN

What you need to know

  • Brightly colored drugs exist, but there’s no evidence that they’re a new trend or that they are being marketed to children and teens.
  • The rumor that rainbow fentanyl will be handed out on Halloween is completely baseless and follows decades of tainted Halloween candy myths.
  • Parents don’t need to cancel trick-or-treating this Halloween. Children are not at risk from rainbow fentanyl, just as they weren’t at risk from razors in apples or from poisoned candy.
  • Fentanyl is a dangerous drug that is driving up overdose deaths among teens and young adults. But promoting myths about fentanyl also has risks, including creating stigma toward people who use drugs and making it more difficult for them to access the resources they need. 

In late August, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a press release about so-called “rainbow fentanyl,” brightly colored pills and tablets that the agency claims are made to look like candy to entice children and teens. For weeks, the warning has been repeated with very little scrutiny by local and national news outlets, complete with alarming headlines telling parents that rainbow fentanyl is “killing kids.” Now, some parents are concerned about the drug being disguised as candy and handed out on Halloween. 

Fact check

Fentanyl is a powerful, deadly drug that claims tens of thousands of lives each year. Overdose deaths among teens and young adults have increased dramatically in recent years, largely due to an increase in fentanyl and fentanyl-laced drugs on the market. Opioid deaths are a public health crisis that requires evidence-based solutions, not fear-based myths.

Identical posts published within hours of each other make it unclear if the viral concern about rainbow fentanyl is entirely organic, but it is certainly unwarranted. In all of their statements and reports, the DEA, local law enforcement, and news outlets have yet to produce a single example of “rainbow” fentanyl being marketed to or causing an overdose in young people. 

A recent news story exemplifies why drug myths continue to circulate. Authorities in New York reportedly seized thousands of pastel-colored pills, which drug enforcement agents described as “disguised” as candy and news reports have attempted to baselessly link to Halloween. Yet, the DEA’s press release clearly states that the pills had been imprinted to make them resemble oxycodone, which is decidedly not candy. There is also no evidence, either from drug authorities or the reporting from the Manhattan criminal court, suggesting that this is anything other than a standard drug trafficking case, with no relation to children or Halloween.

Colorful drugs, especially party drugs, are not new. They’ve been reported for years. And, every few years at Halloween, a new rumor pops up about a drug being disguised as candy. In fact, a rumor that is nearly identical to the rainbow fentanyl warning circulated in 2015, claiming that MDMA (also called molly or ecstasy) was being made to look like candy and handed out to children on Halloween. Before that, it was about strawberry meth (pink, strawberry-flavored crystal meth). In each instance, the warnings and subsequent news coverage were based on law enforcement statements about the existence of drugs without a trace of evidence that the drugs were actually being targeted to kids or handed out to trick-or-treaters. 

In May 2017, an upstate New York police department claimed to have identified tablets containing heroin and fentanyl that were disguised to look like SweeTarts. It issued a warning to the public about the new “trend,” which was picked up by local media. The story began recirculating around Halloween, forcing the department to issue a new statement months later acknowledging that the seized candy was just candy and contained no narcotics. The myth was debunked only for new drugs to be swapped into the urban legend for years to come. 

The panic over rainbow fentanyl is not rooted in evidence and has the potential to hinder the important work of reducing opioid deaths. Fentanyl myths, whether about fentanyl in Halloween candy or so-called “fentanyl exposure” overdoses, are more than harmless urban legends. They serve as grounds for politicians and law enforcement officials to promote harsher drug laws and for the public to further stigmatize people who use drugs.