‘One pill can kill’: Drug cartels use rainbow-colored fentanyl to attract children

Alexander Neville was experimenting with painkillers, when he took a pill that contained fentanyl. His mother, Amy, says she found him dead in his room on June 23, 2020. He was only 14.

“That single pill took his life, and we were very confused. Like, how could one pill kill him? But we quickly learned about illicit fentanyl, and the effects of it,” Amy Neville, of Orange County, Calif., told Yahoo News.

As little as 2 milligrams of fentanyl can kill someone, and the potent opioid is highly trafficked nationwide. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the drug is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and heroin.

Now drug cartels are distributing the lethal opioid in rainbow-colored pills that are apparently intended to appeal to children and teenagers. On Aug. 30, the Drug Enforcement Administration warned the public that the new pills are spreading quickly and targeting youth. So far, the pills have been seized in 21 states, DEA Administrator Ann Milgram said in a press conference Tuesday.

(United States Drug Enforcement Administration)
(United States Drug Enforcement Administration)

“It is increasing, the amount of rainbow fentanyl we’re seizing around the country. We believe it is being marketed and aimed at young people. Now, it’s really difficult to say the exact age. What we know is that it is all over social media,” Milgram explained.

Caleb Alexander, a professor at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, told Yahoo News that the availability of illicit fentanyl has steadily increased in the past 10 years. “More people died last year from opioids than any year ever on record, and unfortunately, [fentanyl] is so powerful that many people overdose and lose their lives unintentionally,” he said.

“It is vitally important that people realize just how dangerous opioids are,” he added. “And that one pill can kill.”

The medicine Narcan can help reverse the effects of an overdose from fentanyl, but it needs to be administered early. “The pill that killed Alexander had enough fentanyl in it to kill four people. So by the time I found him the following morning, it was probably too late for him,” Neville said.

In Los Angeles, it was also too late for Melanie Ramos, a 15-year-old student at Helen Bernstein High School, who died from a fentanyl overdose this month.

A smiling boy in his early teens, Alexander Neville, poses in front of a large Lego structure. (Amy Neville)
Alexander Neville. (Amy Neville)

Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, told Yahoo News that his school district has seen a significant increase in cases. “Over the past few weeks alone, we've had nine children who have OD’d — one, very sadly, died as a result of contact with fentanyl,” he said.

As a result, the school district is distributing Narcan to middle and high schools across the largest city in California. Carvalho says they are moving quickly, and will have Narcan units available within a couple of weeks.

“What's distressing and should be a concern not only here in Los Angeles, [but also] across the state and across the country, is that adult criminal enterprises are finding novel ways of appealing to young people,” he said.

The new wave of rainbow pills is also causing concern at the federal level. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is calling for $290 million in federal funding to combat the deadly drug. He says the funding would be used to support dozens of federal overdose response strategy teams in the U.S. that are fighting against the epidemic and designed to educate children about the dangers of fentanyl.

“They don’t tell the kids it’s candy, but they say, ‘Oh, this will give you a great high,’ and it looks innocent, so the kids are far more likely to take it,” Schumer said.

Dozens of thumbnail photos arrayed in a grid show victims of fentanyl.
Photos of victims at "The Faces of Fentanyl" exhibit commemorating those who have died of fentanyl poisoning at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration headquarters on Sept. 27 in Arlington, Va. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Madeline Hilliard, the founder of Team Awareness Combating Overdose, a nonprofit that focuses on drug overdose prevention says,"rainbow pills aren't exactly new to the illicit drug market." "We've seen them for decades in the form of MDMA or ecstasy. But now they are being sold as some of these counterfeit prescription drugs. And they're being laced with fentanyl, which is very scary,” she said.

To help combat drug overdoses, the organization encourages the use of fentanyl test strips, which can be used to check illicit drugs for fentanyl. “They're very simple. It only takes about three minutes to use. They work very similarly to a home COVID test or a pregnancy test,” Hilliard said.

The CDC also recommends using test strips, because fentanyl is usually unrecognizable. As the deadly drug spreads, experts are warning parents to be vigilant. “Do not underestimate the extreme danger associated with fentanyl, in whatever fashion or way it is presented to our kids. It is in our communities, it is in our cities. And regrettably, your students are having access to these drugs,” Carvalho said.