While officials have seized “rainbow fentanyl” across the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the U.S., the drug has not yet been found in Washington, authorities say.
But it’s only a matter of time until the colorful pills show up here — if they haven’t already — considering law enforcement officials have seized them in 18 states, including Oregon, Alaska and Idaho, said Jake Galvan, acting special agent in charge for the Seattle division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The fentanyl comes in different colors and in pills, powders, chunks or blocks that look similar to street chalk, Galvan said. Officials believe the colorful drug, every bit as deadly as fentanyl found here in blue pills, is intended to appeal to teenagers.
The colorful fentanyl has been traced back to the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels, Galvan said. Many drugs are laced with fentanyl to drive up the addictive factor, as it is 50 times more addictive than heroin and 100 times more addictive than morphine, he added.
Cartels made a calculated decision to introduce the colorful drug, knowing the pills will increase demand as they look for ways to “market” drugs to different groups of people, Galvan said.
“All they’re concerned about is making money,” he said. “They don’t care who they harm or who they kill, bottom line.”
In Washington, fatal overdoses from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl doubled in 2020 from the previous year. State health officials reported 337 deaths involving synthetic opioids in 2019, 672 in 2020 and 1,214 in 2021.
The stigma and misconceptions surrounding substance use disorders have contributed to the opioid crisis that’s caused a rise in fatal overdoses nationwide, said Caleb Banta-Green, an epidemiologist and professor in the University of Washington School of Medicine. Economic impoverishment and social factors have also played prominent roles, he said.
People initially use drugs as an escape, he said, noting that children aren’t given resources to healthily deal with pain or stress — and society has normalized alcohol use and smoking as ways to cope.
“Imagine that the tool you found to make you feel good happens to be addictive,” Banta-Green said. “[What you found] is not exercise, not mindfulness, not yoga, which are wonderful, but not nearly as potent as methamphetamine or fentanyl.”
The changing brain chemistry of those with substance use disorders leads to compulsive drug use, Banta-Green said, and withdrawals lead to psychological changes such as cravings.
“The drug or alcohol becomes the most important thing in your life, and that obviously leads to social issues,” he said.
“We have a myth that people mostly recover from addiction just through sheer willpower, and it’s just not true.”
That perspective prompts a lack of empathy for people who use drugs, with some others asking, “Why would I care about them when they don’t care about themselves?” said Banta-Green, who manages stopoverdose.org, which outlines how to recognize, prevent and respond to overdoses.
The website also provides resources for families and friends of people struggling with substance use disorders and has a tool to help people find Washington pharmacies with Naloxone, a federally approved medication that works to rapidly reverse opioid overdoses.
He said fentanyl is so cheap and short-acting that people quickly develop a tolerance and increase their consumption, so the risks of addiction and overdose are extremely high.
While rainbow fentanyl has not yet been detected in Washington, Banta-Green said communities should demand lifesaving services and a humane approach from their leaders to helping people with substance use disorders.
“Until we have that political will and public demand, we’re never going to get anywhere,” he said.