Rainbow fentanyl: Are Tampa Bay trick-or-treaters at risk?

Or is this just another false Halloween scare? How a potentially lethal opioid colored to look like candy is raising concerns.
The Drug Enforcement Administration recently warned parents about brightly colored fentanyl pills that they say are designed to entice children into addiction. Some prominent public officials including Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody have gone further and linked the risk to trick or treating on Halloween.
The Drug Enforcement Administration recently warned parents about brightly colored fentanyl pills that they say are designed to entice children into addiction. Some prominent public officials including Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody have gone further and linked the risk to trick or treating on Halloween. [ DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINISTRATION | TNS ]
Published Oct. 29, 2022|Updated Oct. 31, 2022

Recommendations that parents carefully check the candy in their children’s treat bags surface every Halloween.

But some warnings this year have been starker than ever.

The Drug Enforcement Agency on Sept. 1 announced that drug dealers are packaging and distributing the potentially lethal opioid, fentanyl, as multi-colored candy-sized pills. Officials described the move as “a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction among kids and young adults.”

Related: Port Richey couple exposed 2 toddlers to fentanyl in Dunedin home, deputies say

That has led some prominent public officials to warn that rainbow fentanyl is a Halloween risk.

“Every mom is worried right now, ‘What if this gets into my kid’s Halloween basket,’” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said recently on Fox News.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody said in a news conference held in Tampa this week: “Halloween can be scary, but nowhere near as scary as rainbow colored fentanyl that looks like candy and can be lethal in minute doses.”

And U.S. Sen. Rick Scott is among a dozen U.S. senators who issued a joint public service announcement video about rainbow fentanyl, timed for Halloween.

But does this drug really pose a risk for Tampa Bay kids this season?

Some experts say there is no evidence that drug dealers are giving out their product to young children. They liken the warnings to previous Halloween scares such as razor blades in candy or cannabis-laced gummy bears.

Here’s what parents need to know:

Related: Rash of overdoses ramps up fentanyl fight in Florida

What is rainbow fentanyl?

Rainbow fentanyl is a multi-colored, candy-sized version of fentanyl. A powerful synthetic opioid, it is similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A prescription drug typically used to treat patients with severe pain or to manage pain after surgery, it is also manufactured illegally and sold on the black market.

Just 2 milligrams of fentanyl, the equivalent of 10 to 15 grains of table salt, is considered a lethal dose. Roughly 71,000 people in the U.S. died after overdosing on the drug in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Its potency has led drug dealers to mix it with other drugs, including heroin and cocaine to give users a “better high.”

Related: 7 people hospitalized in Tampa after taking ‘bad drugs,’ police say

Is rainbow fentanyl in Tampa Bay or Florida?

Seizures of rainbow fentanyl have occurred in 26 states, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.

However, Tampa Bay region law enforcement agencies say they have not seen any cases here.

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“There have been no incidents or reports within St. Petersburg, and we have no reason to believe there is a threat,” said Ashley Limardo, a spokeswoman with the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Neither have any cases of rainbow fentanyl been reported to the Florida Poison Information Centers, a Florida Department of Health funded service that relies on voluntary reporting.

Related: Fugitive had ‘enough Fentanyl to kill over 100,000 people,’ Florida sheriff says

So should I be worried for my kids this Halloween?

Most seem to agree that the risk, if it exists at all, is very remote.

Fentanyl is undoubtedly a dangerous drug, but it’s “silly” to connect it to Halloween, said Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware.

Best has spent decades researching how public scares arise and spread, among them what he calls the “mistaken belief that poisoned Halloween candy poses a serious threat to our kids.”

“They’re not going to give (drugs) away,” he said of drug dealers. “And if you were going to give them away, you wouldn’t give them to elementary school kids. (They) don’t have a lot of disposable income.”

New drugs often elicit a moral panic and overreaction, said Bryan Miller, a professor and director of the Director of the Center for Justice and Social Research at Clemson University. Even if the drug is disguised as candy, it’s unlikely that it is intended to be distributed to children.

“Criminologists have termed this the “scary drug of the year” phenomenon going back to the 1990s, which we have seen repeated with a number of different substances especially around Halloween,” he said in an email. “This narrative plays to parents’ worst fears.”

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement also sees little merit to the claims about rainbow fentanyl. Its public safety flyer for this year’s Halloween states: “there is little evidence illicit drug producers are intentionally targeting children with candy-colored pills.” Although it does warn parents to be aware of gummies or chocolate made with cannabis-related products like THC.

Related: Halloween and fall related events happening in the Tampa Bay area

What is the advice for trick-or-treating?

As with every year, parents should check the candy their children are receiving at doorsteps to make sure it’s not home-made or already open.

“Be suspicious of any untrusted product that doesn’t look like it was manufactured,” said Alexandra Funk, a pharmacist and toxicologist who is the managing director of the Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa.

The center runs a 24/7 help line staffed by pharmacists, nurses and physicians for immediate advice on poisoning incidents at 1-800 222-1222.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement recommends children eat only factory-wrapped treats and that candy be examined for tampering. Children should trick or treat in groups and not approach people in cars. Young children should never be left unaccompanied while trick-or-treating.

Related: Pinellas man facing murder charge in fentanyl overdose death, police say