Drug cartels are using brightly colored “rainbow fentanyl” pills to target children as young as middle schoolers, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration warned Monday, signaling a new threat in the opioid crisis.
In an interview Monday, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said the drug is being sold in pills and powders that come in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes intended to look like candy. Sometimes traffickers even nickname the products “Sweet Tarts” and “Skittles” after real candy.
“This is another tactic that they’re using to get more fentanyl to more people,” Milgram said. “The more drugs they can sell, the more addiction they drive, the more profit they make.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is “50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine,” and it is the “deadliest drug threat facing this country,” the DEA says on its website. Nearly 108,000 people died of drug overdoses in the U.S. last year, with 66% of those deaths related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The DEA issued a warning about rainbow fentanyl last month.
Fentanyl being pushed into the U.S. comes primarily from two criminal drug networks in Mexico, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, Milgram said. Both use chemicals bought from China, she said.
The bright colors are a departure from the way the drug is usually packaged — in pills made to look like prescription medicines or mixed in with illicit drugs like cocaine.
“So we believe that they’re doing this to get new users, to appeal to younger users,” Milgram said.
The DEA and other law enforcement agencies have seized fentanyl in the colorful presentation in 21 states, she said. That is a relatively small quantity compared with the pills made to look like fake prescription drugs, but it is increasing, Milgram said.
In recent weeks, Milgram said, the agency has been called to middle schools to investigate fake pills that looked like medication but were actually fentanyl.
At least nine students have overdosed in the Los Angeles Unified School District in the past month, at least seven of them from possible fentanyl-laced pills. The district is offering the lifesaving drug Narcan at all schools free to reverse the effects of fentanyl.
Milgram warned that cartels are also following children on social media to get access to them.
“Our kids are on smartphones, and that means that the cartels are following them,” she said. “The cartels are on smartphones, and what we know without question is that most young people are aware that there are people dealing drugs on social media, not everyone, but particularly when you start to talk to high school kids, they have an awareness.”
Milgram said parents need to have “open and honest conversations” with their kids about the threat of fentanyl, how they can be targeted and how to formulate an “exit strategy” if they are offered drugs.
“When we were in the room with the fentanyl families, the families that have lost loved ones, I was stunned when they said that they wished they’d talked to their kids in elementary school,” she said. “Not in a way that would be frightening, but just in a sense that you have to make healthy choices about your bodies.”
As Halloween approaches, Milgram said, the agency has seen nothing that indicates that the pills will be related to the holiday or that drug traffickers are putting it into Halloween candy.
As the DEA battles the fentanyl epidemic, she advised families to remain vigilant.
“So many moms and dads came up to me and said, ‘We never thought this could happen to us, this would never happen to us, and it did,’ and so they want every other family in America to understand that it could happen to anyone,” Milgram said.
This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.