Amidst all the other things parents have to worry about, they’ve been bombarded with a message on fentanyl that’s only half-right: it’s dangerous (yes!) and the main threat has become multicolored (not quite). Easily identified by its bright, colorful pills, rainbow fentanyl is a marketing gimmick with dangerous consequences. But at least, it is a glaring red flag for parents and minors alike. Far more insidious and deadly is the growing practice of packaging fentanyl in duller blues and other colors meant to mimic real medications.
Produced in volume in labs, fentanyl is easily molded into pill shapes with markings that make it indistinguishable from prescription drugs such as Xanax and Percocet. With a few grains of sand worth of fentanyl able to kill in minutes, ingesting a single such pill can easily result in death. Indeed, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates that roughly 40% of fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills contain a potentially lethal dose.
Over the last few years, the devastation left in the wake of these imposter pills has been tragic. Fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills have helped drive the number of teenage fentanyl-related overdose deaths rapidly upwards from 253 in 2019, to 680 in 2020, and 884 in 2021. Within these numbers is a parade of heart-wrenching stories of loss, such as a 14-year-old found unresponsive in his bed by his mom, dying a short time later after consuming a single fake Oxycontin pill; and there is the 15-year-old killed at her high school by a counterfeit Percocet.
The mortality figures keep climbing in large part because fentanyl is an enforcement nightmare. Illegal fentanyl is made in small, easily hidden labs, and it is incredibly potent, making it cheaper to produce and more conveniently trafficked than alternatives. Its ability to masquerade as so many other substances—illicit and otherwise—compounds the problem.
One of the most concerning aspects of all of this is that too many teenagers are unaware of the dangers until it is too late. A survey commissioned by the social media company Snap found that only 27% of teenagers were aware that fentanyl was used to illicitly create pills, while only 37% rated fentanyl as “extremely dangerous.”
Bridging this education gap is clearly the first step to getting fewer kids to accidentally ingest fentanyl. The DEA, for its part, has spearheaded a public education campaign called One Pill Can Kill to highlight fentanyl contamination and its dangers. Individual schools have likewise stepped up their efforts to inform students about the risks of illicit medications.
But even if every teenager in America fully understood the dangers of counterfeit pills and fentanyl, it would not ensure they would avoid consumption. These are the peak risk-taking years, when adolescents are most likely to feel the full extent of invincible exceptionalism. “It may be risky, but the odds favor me,” the teenage brain too often screams.
With demand resistant to the dangers, greater efforts must be made to attack the supply. This is far from a call to renew the blanket policies of the “war on drugs,” however. Time has proven those largely to be an expensive failure.
Unfortunately, those misguided ideas still govern much of America’s drug laws. Federal law, for example, punishes primarily based on drug weight rather than potency, and only provides for a small enhancement for hiding fentanyl in other substances. Crossing an arbitrary weight threshold can add years or even a decade to a sentence, while hiding a lethal dose in hundreds of counterfeit pills may only add months. Too frequently, these sentences simply do not reflect the public safety risks.
Of course, sentencing can only alter behavior around the margins. Changing the composition of the drug supply will rest primarily with a shift in enforcement strategies that emphasize dangerousness and put dealers on notice that counterfeit pills will draw special focus. To this end, appropriators should likewise ensure law enforcement have the resources necessary to step up efforts to pose as buyers on social media and other mediums targeting teenagers with counterfeit pills. Every dealer on these sites should wonder every time they see a new customer whether it’s an officer in disguise.
Stopping illegal fentanyl entirely may not be an imminently achievable goal, but it is a critical, worthwhile undertaking that policymakers and stakeholders must prioritize. That there are children dying from counterfeit pills demands a strong, unified effort to end this scourge.