Halloween has come and gone and almost overnight, so have the majority of news stories on “rainbow fentanyl” possibly appearing in the hauls of candy kids brought home after trick or treating.
Urban myths and moral panics surrounding Halloween are older than the parents of this year’s current crop of trick or treaters, and most likely, as old as their grandparents. Warnings of nefarious individuals putting razor blades, poison, and drugs of almost every kind into bags of candy to be brought home by unsuspecting children hit the headlines like clockwork at the beginning of fall each year, and spread incredibly fast.
Near the end of August, the DEA issued an ominous press release warning of “a new method used by drug cartels to sell highly addictive and potentially deadly fentanyl made to look like candy to children and young people.” The release went on to say this was “a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults.” While it doesn’t mention Halloween specifically, the inference was quickly made by local and national news outlets, and another urban legend was born.
As time drew closer to Halloween, news stories about this latest yet very familiar panic spread like wildfire. Warnings and predictions became more dire. Law enforcement made a few large fentanyl busts, including one where the drug was found in candy boxes and another where it was found in Lego boxes. The DEA was all too quick to make the connection that it was a marketing ploy, rather than a convenient method of drug smuggling.
“This is deliberate. This is a calculated, treacherous deception to market rainbow fentanyl like candy,” said Frank Tarentino, the DEA Special Agent in Charge at an October press conference, according to broadcast news reports. “This is every parent’s worst nightmare, especially in the month of October as Halloween fast approaches.”
Several weeks and more than 1,500 news stories later, according to Washington Post journalist Paul Farhi, not a single credible confirmed incident of a dealer slipping fentanyl into candy baskets in order to get kids hooked on the drug has materialized.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, as killing one’s customers right off the bat would be a bad business model, and we can’t think of any situation where a rich person would want to give away tens of thousands of dollars worth of anything for free.
“Drug dealers aren’t going to give away their drugs,” said Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, in an interview with The Atlantic. “And if they are going to give them away to try and attract business, they aren’t going to give them away to elementary-school students. What are they gonna do, get their milk money?”
Best has been studying the urban legend surrounding intentionally contaminated Halloween candy for nearly four decades, with data he says goes back to 1958. Writing for CNN, Best said in all that time he “can’t find any evidence that any child has ever been killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating.”
The myth however, continues to not only persist, but is fueled and amplified by both news outlets looking for easy clicks on crime reporting and politicians and pundits alike looking for a boogeyman to strike down while appearing tough on crime. Senate Republicans released a PSA in early October practically dripping with fear and panic.
“The powerful drug cartels are coming after your kids, your neighbors, your students, your family members, and your friends. No one is spared as fake pills laced with fentanyl are beginning to look like candy in an effort to lure young Americans,” said Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn.
Both the GOP and its chief mouthpiece, Fox News, tried to tie the myth to President Joe Biden and Democrats. Lauding the infamously failed “just say no” campaign during President Ronald Reagan’s failed War on Drugs, one Fox columnist wrote “Former first lady Nancy Reagan built an entire anti-drug campaign urging kids to "Just Say No" in the 1980s, but President Biden just says "Yes" to drug traffickers pouring over the border illegally and going after our kids.”
Democrats too, pushed the panic button, with Chuck Schumer saying in September “They’re trying to get children younger and younger to take this horrible, horrible drug,” Schumer said. “This is nothing short of despicable by these drug dealers, who are luring kids, young kids, to take this drug with terrible consequences for themselves.”
Drug addiction, overdoses, and substance abuse at large are real problems in America that require thoughtful and careful solutions that address the root causes, and do so in a way that reduces harm. Moral panics based on flimsy or no evidence and hearsay do nothing to address this problem, and in fact, cause more harm. The stigma attached to drug use, which trickles all the way down to even legal or legal in some places substances like marijuana only push people further away from attempting to access what little resources might be available for help. Meanwhile, fake news stories pushing panics give life to grifters and opportunists all too eager to use the fear they create to move forward with an agenda that makes America look and feel all the more dystopian.