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‘Rainbow fentanyl’ is the latest twist in the opioid crisis — and shows how illegal drug dealers are adapting

The illicit market for pain pills never went away. Now fake ones are flooding the street and causing even higher rates of overdose deaths.

“To put it simply, the pills that look like real pills are the ones that scare me more,” said Zibbell. In North Carolina and West Virginia, where he does fieldwork among people who use drugs, he has not seen rainbow-colored tablets, but plenty of the counterfeit ones that look real. The real danger in the fake pills is among casual drug users unwittingly taking them thinking they’re getting oxycodone, he said. “I would much rather have a bright red rainbow fentanyl pill than one that looks like an oxycodone 30 [milligrams]. Right? Because at least people are going to know they’re fake.”

“These fake pills are designed to look like real prescription pills right down to the size, shape, color and stamping,” said the DEA news release.

One pill can kill

“The most important thing is getting that word out about how dangerous and widespread these counterfeits are to those people,” he said.

Game changer

Another possibility is that cartels in Mexico are looking to distinguish their fentanyl from competitors in a bid to draw customers in an illicit drug market that everyone now recognizes is completely saturated with fake pills. “After a few years of this happening, everyone kind of realizes, ‘Well, the market is basically booked so maybe I gotta switch up and sell yellow tablets instead of blue tablets,’ to deal with the same product,” said Pardo.

Alternately, for casual users with a higher overdose risk, the colors could signal that the pills contain potentially lethal fentanyl — a safety measure — while telling habitual users, who might want the drug for its heavier dose, what the tablet contains. “Tablets actually present some benefits for users because you can’t tamper with tablets. You know that baggie of heroin that you’re using is stepped on probably you know, six, seven times,” said Pardo.

Rather than solely seeing cartels looking to hook kids on fentanyl with rainbow fentanyl, said Pardo, the DEA would be better served by seeing the black market as a genuine market, with the colored pills sending some kind of signal to customers.

“I don’t think the DEA is really considering how much of a game changer tablets are,” said Pardo. “People who have never used drugs before, those individuals may come to realize that it’s just too risky, because everything contains fentanyl, everything is fake, so I’m not going to get involved.”

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