Brightly colored fentanyl pressed into pills or in a chalky form—called rainbow fentanyl—were found in 18 states, a press release from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warns, and drug dealers getting “kids and young adults” hooked early on.

It was only a matter of time until fentanyl and other deadly drugs were marketed the way designer drugs are, as colorfully branded pills and in other forms.

“Rainbow fentanyl—fentanyl pills and powder that come in a variety of bright colors, shapes, and sizes—is a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram. “The men and women of the DEA are relentlessly working to stop the trafficking of rainbow fentanyl and defeat the Mexican drug cartels that are responsible for the vast majority of the fentanyl that is being trafficked in the United States.”

While even the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) admits there has never been a fatal overdose recorded from cannabis alone—fentanyl is a completely different story, as it has a knack for stopping breathing.

There’s no other way to look at what’s happening in the United States with opioids as anything other than an epidemic. In fact, according to NIDA’s data, deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone—primarily fentanyl—continued their steady death march with 56,516 overdose deaths reported in 2020.

That number, 56,526 deaths, is in the ballpark of total U.S. military casualties during the Vietnam War recorded in the Defense Casualty Analysis System. Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded 107,622 total drug overdoses in 2021, and say that the majority, or 66% of those deaths, are related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. (The CDC also says an overdose from cannabis is “unlikely.”)

An overdose from accidentally taking a bit too much fentanyl, however, is likely. The DEA’s announcement reminds us that fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. In other words, 2 mg of fentanyl, equal to 10-15 grains of table salt, can kill you. Obviously, street drugs don’t provide lab testing results—and the margin for error is as slim as 2 mg.

Multnomah County Sheriff / Courtesy of the Drug Enforcement Administration

The opioid epidemic is a multifaceted problem, however. On the flip side of the opioid epidemic, there are also people with high-level pain who complain that they are denied opioids and falsely labeled addicts.

The DEA announcement blames cartels for the rise in rainbow fentanyl, explaining that the fentanyl available in the United States is primarily supplied by two criminal drug networks: the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG).

Uttam Dhillon, former acting administrator of the DEA, told Yahoo! News on September 1 that the Sinaloa cartel has ramped up pill production big time, and that DEA agents are now seizing millions of fentanyl pills in places such as Los Angeles.

“Even seeing just one lab in Mexico pressing pills was something unique that we were seeing. And this was only a few years ago,” Dhillon told Yahoo! News. “Now we’re seeing literally a million pills being seized in Los Angeles, for example, just a few months ago. So the growth has been massive.”

The DEA is fighting back with public awareness campaigns and FAQ sheets.

Launched in September 2021, the ”One Pill Can Kill” Public Awareness Campaign was launched by the DEA with a goal to educate Americans about the dangers of fake pills, which can be disguised as a less dangerous pill or in other ways. The DEA also provides more resources for parents that can be found on DEA’s Fentanyl Awareness page.

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