What is 'rainbow fentanyl?' Reports of 'deadly' colorful pills and powder raise concerns

"Rainbow fentanyl" pills found at the Nogales Port of Entry in Arizona.

Reports of "rainbow fentanyl" are growing nationwide, and law enforcement suggests the colorful, candy-looking opioid could target young people. Other experts say this is false, noting the colors are mostly likely added to distinguish products.

Over the last week, seizures of colored fentanyl have made headlines in Arizona, Oregon, California and Washington, D.C. On Wednesday, for example, border patrol agents said they found more than 15,000 rainbow fentanyl pills at Arizona's Nogales Port of Entry – following 250,000 fentanyl pills that were seized at the same port Tuesday, some of which were multi-colored.

During a search warrant by Oregon law enforcement earlier this week, 800 fentanyl pills and four grams of multi-colored, powdered fentanyl were also found in a Portland residence, Multnomah County Sheriff's Office said Tuesday.

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"Rainbow fentanyl" pills found at the Nogales Port of Entry in Arizona.
"Rainbow fentanyl" pills found at the Nogales Port of Entry in Arizona.

"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, or those who may be willing to try the drug due to its playful coloring," the sheriff's office said in a news release. "The powdered fentanyl found during this investigation resembles the color and consistency of sidewalk chalk."

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While many may be encountering rainbow fentanyl for the first time, it's not new. Jennifer Lofland, field intelligence manager for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's D.C. Division, told Fox 5 News that pills have been seized around the D.C. region, for example, for at least the last 18 months.

What is rainbow fentanyl?

Rainbow fentanyl is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, that's been dyed various colors.

Pharmaceutical fentanyl is an opioid prescribed for severe pain, including advanced cancer treatment, the CDC notes. But with these non-medical grade (or "illicitly manufactured") versions of fentanyl, the levels of potency are difficult to determine, and can vary significantly.

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"To be clear, all fentanyl purchased on the street is deadly, no matter the color, shape, size, or form," Placer County District Attorney Morgan Gire said in a Wednesday release in light of reports of rainbow fentanyl in California. "Yet we find this rainbow-colored substance is one of the many tools that dealers are using to make the poison appeal to our kids."

A lot remains unknown about rainbow fentanyl. The colorful powders and pills can also be laced with other drugs, Lofland told Fox 5.

While these law enforcement agencies suggest that children will be targeted with rainbow fentanyl, other experts strongly disagree – noting colors are probably added to distinguish products. It's also unlikely for children to have enough money to purchase these products, some harm reduction experts and toxicologists note.

"There is not a lot of money in targeting kids and this idea that drug sellers are coming for our children is a very old one that’s been washed and repeated over the decades," Claire Zagorski, program coordinator at the Pharmacy Addictions Research and Medicine Program at the University of Texas at Austin, told Vice News.

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Fentanyl, generally found in liquid or powder form, and fentanyl-laced drugs are extremely potent – as the addictive opioid is up to 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It only takes 2 milligrams of fentanyl – about the weight of a few grains of salt – to cause a fatal overdose," Multnomah County health officials warned.

The most common drugs involved in overdose deaths today are fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, according to the CDC, with about 150 deaths every day.

The surging fentanyl overdose deaths in recent years have exacerbated the ongoing opioid epidemic.

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If you're unsure whether or not a drug has fentanyl in it, the CDC highly recommends the use of fentanyl test strips. In the event of an overdose, health experts also stress the importance of using naloxone (or "Narcan"), a medication used to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose, if available. If you or someone you know uses fentanyl, other opioids or drugs that could be laced, experts recommend carrying multiple doses of naloxone.

"Anyone that intends to use powdered fentanyl should follow principles of harm reduction by going slow, not using when you are alone and ensuring that someone has Narcan," Multnomah County Health's harm reduction supervisor Kelsi Junge stated in a release.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is 'rainbow fentanyl?' What to know about dangerous colorful pill