In the weeks leading up to Halloween, law enforcement agencies across the country—from the DEA down to local police—warned parents about “rainbow fentanyl,” a new version of synthetic opioid pills that come in yellow, green, pink, and other colors. Parents needed to remain vigilant, authorities said, otherwise the drugs might somehow get mixed into kids’ trick-or-treat bags along with bags of Skittles and mini Snickers bars.
But now, two days after Halloween, there hasn’t been a single report of candy mixed with fentanyl, rainbow variety or otherwise. It seems either the warnings worked perfectly or all the fuss and bother was unjustified drug war fearmongering.
In response to a VICE News inquiry about whether there had been any incidents of kids being unintentionally exposed to fentanyl on or around Halloween, a DEA spokesperson sent previous statements and press releases, including a comment from the DEA's administrator saying, "We’ve seen nothing that indicates that this is going to be related to Halloween."
Other police agencies went so far as to issue statements debunking rumors and making it extra clear nothing nefarious happened with Halloween candy.
“Important message: Social media posts claiming that fentanyl-laced candy has led to deaths of young people in the City of Buffalo are not accurate,” Buffalo police announced Nov. 1 on Twitter. “Buffalo police & fire have no reports of incidents at this time.”
While fentanyl has started turning up in the form of colorful pills, the Halloween scare appears to be yet another case of misunderstanding fueling misinformation. For years now, Mexican cartels have been cooking up fentanyl in clandestine labs, dying the white powder blue, and pressing it into pills known as M-30s, resembling prescription oxycodone or Percocet. The counterfeit painkillers have become pervasive in the U.S., fueling record numbers of fatal overdoses. There have been multiple cases of high schoolers dying after taking blue M-30s, likely because they were not expecting fentanyl. But the pills have never been marketed to young children.
The Halloween hysteria can be traced back to August, when law enforcement officials started raising the alarm that colorful fentanyl pills “could be the start of a trend with transnational criminal organizations targeting younger users.” Then, on August 30, the DEA issued a press release warning “this trend 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.”
The DEA has since said that, as of October 12, “brightly-colored fentanyl and fentanyl pills” have turned up in 26 states. Not coincidentally, some Republican candidates have weaponized fentanyl in the midterm elections, attempting to link the drug to migrants at the border—even though data shows traffickers tend to be U.S. citizens caught while crossing at ports of entry.
The main outlet pumping fentanyl fears onto the airwaves is Fox News. In September, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said on the network: “I mean, just last month, 2,000 pounds of fentanyl came across our border. That could kill 500 million people. We’re coming into Halloween and every mom in the country is worried, ‘What if this gets into my kid’s Halloween basket?'”
One Fox News contributor, a former GOP lobbyist, lamented on Oct. 31 about the end of harmless Halloween pranks: “Now parents have to check Cinderella and Chewbacca’s Skittles for fentanyl. Good times.”
One sheriff in South Dakota pointed to a recent drug bust in Los Angeles where law enforcement seized more than 12,000 fentanyl pills that were being smuggled in boxes of Skittles, Whoppers, and SweeTarts, which Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead told Fox News are "all popular Halloween candies."
“Maybe a family member or somebody who's struggling with addiction had purchased some that was in a package like this,” Milstead said. “I'd be concerned about the fact that it's in a box, it appears to be a candy, and that when you open it, there's brightly colored pills in there."
In Garfield County, Colorado, the sheriff’s office warned on local TV news that local dealers had started calling colored fentanyl pills "Skittles," which appear “as a harmless candy or mint.”
In New York, when a dealer was caught with 15,000 colorful fentanyl pills inside a LEGO box, the city’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan said, “Using happy colors to make a deadly drug seem fun and harmless is a new low, even for the Mexican cartels.”
But as a fentanyl dealer previously told VICE News, the idea behind adding colorful dyes to pills is much more simple and practical: Customers like branding, and colors help sell the product.
A source in Sinaloa, Mexico, told VICE News the cartel realized accidental fentanyl overdoses were bad for business and started making fentanyl pills more colorful to make it obvious to users what they are getting. The source shared images of recently made fentanyl pills dyed bright green and pink and pressed into the shape of a menacing skull.
“The color doesn't change anything, but it makes it more attractive to users,” the source in Sinaloa said.
Halloween-related scares about tainted candy—involving everything from razor blades to crack cocaine—have been around seemingly as long as the holiday itself, and research has shown that the myths are simply not based in fact. Joel Best, an emeritus sociology professor at the University of Delaware, looked at reports dating back to 1958 and couldn’t find a single instance of a child dying because of something foreign put into Halloween candy.
"If you give a dose of fentanyl to kids in elementary school, you have an excellent chance of killing them," Best told the Associated Press. "If you do addict them, what are you going to do, try to take their lunch money? No one is trying to addict little kids to fentanyl."
There was one documented incident in 1974 where an 8-year-old died after eating Pixy Stix laced with cyanide, but as Vox noted when debunking a previous Halloween candy scare, the culprit was the child’s father, who apparently did it to get life insurance money.
When asked by VICE News whether there had been any cases this year of kids being exposed to fentanyl in Halloween candy, a DEA spokesperson pointed to a previous comment made earlier this year on Fox News by agency leader Anne Milgram.
“We have not seen any connection to Halloween,” Milgram told Fox News. “And I want to be very clear: If we see it, I promise you have my commitment, any incredible evidence, we will come out and we will tell you.”
The lack of rainbow fentanyl in Halloween candy prompted plenty of snark on Twitter and even a headline in The Onion joking: “Disappointed Trick-or-Treater Was Really Hoping to Get at Least One Pack Of Fentanyl.”
The satirical outlet described 8-year-old Olivia Vercetti, a fictional character, as throwing a bag of candy across the room in defeat after failing to find any fentanyl: “Aw, man, everybody was supposed to be giving out rainbow fentanyl this year, and I didn’t even get a single pill.”