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Drug dealers are theoretically targeting your babies again, America

A photograph of “rainbow fentanyl” seized during a raid. (Multnomah County, Ore., Sheriff's Office)

About a month ago, deputies with the Multnomah County Special Investigations Unit executed a search warrant on a home in Portland, Ore. Inside, they found body armor, cash, guns and a lot of drugs. Included in that latter category was something that an officer described as “rainbow fentanyl” in a video released by the sheriff’s office.

“The people that we end up dealing with and talking to on the street that we catch with this,” the officer explained, “say that this is kind of what people want.” But, he added, “my worry is that kids are going to be affected more so than your users that we deal with on the street because if this shows up at a party or some other places that they’re not familiar with … it could have deadly consequences.”

Kid finds a weird, colored block that looks like sidewalk chalk and picks it up? Sure, that’s conceivable as a risk. But, as the officer notes, the purpose of the coloration appears to be marketing, not appealing to children. That’s also what a fentanyl dealer told Vice News for a report published in May: Their customers like the colorful product. That seems much more probable as a reason for the coloration than that making fentanyl pink would slightly increase the odds that a child would suddenly collapse into drug addiction.

Yet in its news release describing the bust, the sheriff’s office suggested just that.

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“Deputies are particularly concerned about rainbow fentanyl getting into the hands of young adults or children, who mistake the drug for something else, such as candy or a toy,” the release read, “or those who may be willing to try the drug due to its playful coloring.”

The Multnomah release came out on Aug. 16. Two weeks later, the Drug Enforcement Administration was amplifying the seizure — and the purported risk.

“Rainbow fentanyl — fentanyl pills and powder that come in a variety of bright colors, shapes, and sizes — is a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in a statement released by the agency.

Even in that same statement, the agency was less forceful, saying that the colored drug “appears to be 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.” Emphasis added.

If you are over the age of 6, you’ve probably already heard some variant on this theme. The Washington Post has written about it before, the idea that drug dealers are trying to get kids to take drugs that they think are candy. It’s a variant of the “dealers are giving out drugs packaged as Halloween candy” urban legend, one that similarly makes little sense upon even passing consideration. The “rainbow fentanyl” scare is similar in another way: There’s no apparent evidence that this is an intentional effort.

Nonetheless, we have warnings that making drugs look like candy isn’t about portability or disguise but about getting kids hooked. That drugs bearing Homer Simpson’s face are “to entice a kid to try the drug,” as one Missouri police officer claimed, since kids love the Simpsons. That a bag of meth that looks like Pop Rocks is intentionally meant to look like the candy so kids will eat it. Over and over, back through time, leveraging the inherent fear parents have of harm befalling their kids to engage them in the fight over illegal drugs. From rainbow parties to rainbow fentanyl.

There is something different at play with the current hyperventilating, however. It’s happening two months before a midterm election and it involves a drug that sits at the intersection of three politically loaded issues: immigration, China and opioid abuse.

There was a surge in overdose deaths last year, largely due to synthetic opioids like fentanyl that are often manufactured in China. This is a significant problem, for obvious reasons, and is in part a function of cross-border smuggling operations. So Republican legislators have repeatedly used fentanyl as a cudgel against President Biden, often pointing to the odd metric of seizures — that is, drugs stopped at the border — to suggest that fentanyl deaths are a function of Biden’s immigration policies. (Smugglers generally bring drugs across the border through existing checkpoints because it’s easier than trying to sneak them in illegally.)

If Republicans are making the point, it’s a safe bet that Fox News is, too. In July, I looked at the increase in mentions of fentanyl on cable news — specifically, on Fox.

The pattern continues: Over the past month, Fox News has mentioned “rainbow fentanyl” at least 66 times on-air. Fox News’s website has also been relentlessly ringing the alarm bell.

At the end of August, host Tucker Carlson interviewed a former DEA official named Derek Maltz, who noted the DEA announcement, offering a different theory for why the drug came in rainbow hues.

“Behind the scenes,” Maltz said, “you have the Chinese Communist Party that are looking to destabilize this country by killing the kids. It’s that simple.”

This is a pretty remarkable cascade of rhetoric. Law enforcement finds drugs that have different colors, something that follows an established pattern of dealers trying to market and/or disguise their wares. Officials — perhaps slyly or perhaps credulously — attribute the effort to some hard-to-parse effort to get kids hooked. A party and a media outlet that have repeatedly focused on fentanyl, often for explicitly political purposes, seizes on the new threat.

It can simultaneously be true both that opioid addiction and overdoses are a critical problem demanding more attention and that the risk of opioids and fentanyl are heightened because it’s politically useful to do so. To be skeptical of “rainbow fentanyl” as a backdoor effort by China to murder American children is not to say that opioids are not a real danger in other contexts.

What’s suspect, in fact, would be the suggestion that questioning the former is questioning the latter. There’s a difference between expressing a fear and stoking one.