Drug dealers target children and young adults with rainbow-colored fentanyl pills and powder. [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration photo]
Drug dealers are now targeting kids in rainbow colors
When prosecutor Marco Boccato saw potentially deadly fentanyl being sold by drug dealers in a rainbow of colors, he thought of the colorful, sugary Trix cereal slogan.
“’Trixes are for kids.’ It’s direct marketing to young people. It’s just scary that we’ve come to this. They market these people-killing drugs directly to young people,” said Boccato, assistant U.S. attorney for the U.S. District Attorney’s Office of Oregon.
Boccato and others on the front lines of the fentanyl addiction and overdose crisis spoke at a Focus on Fentanyl conference in Medford this month.
Drug cartels in Mexico buy cheap chemical blends that are precursors to fentanyl from China, process them into fentanyl in clandestine labs, then smuggle drugs into the United States for huge profits, said experts.
The cartels began by mostly mixing fentanyl with other drugs, like heroin, or turning fentanyl into pale blue pills that mimicked prescription opioid painkillers. The latest fad is to add bright colors to fentanyl to make pills, powder or something that looks like children’s sidewalk chalk. The newest variant of fentanyl is known as rainbow fentanyl or “Skittles” – a reference to the well-known fruit-flavored candy.
Children and adults don’t have to meet a drug dealer on the street corner. They can buy pills over the internet, including through social media apps like Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat. Taking a pill carries far less stigma than injecting drugs, Boccato said.
“It’s a nightmare for parents, and the availability increases dramatically for children,” he said.
Investigative journalist Ben Westhoff – author of “Fentanyl Inc.” – spoke at the conference about his trip to China to see the chemical manufacturing industry up close.
He asked to visit businesses on behalf of a fictional friend interested in making large purchases of fentanyl precursors that were legal in China but illegal in Europe and the United States.
A lab was in a suburban office park, with vendors on the first floor and workers mixing chemicals on the second floor. Westhoff saw barrels filled with bags of fentanyl precursors – all awaiting export.
A lethal dose of fentanyl is the size of 10 to 15 grains of salt. It can cause people to stop breathing and die.
Westhoff then traveled to Wuhan, China. The city is primarily known as ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is also a manufacturing hub for the chemical industry. China manufactures almost all of the world’s generic drugs, he said.
Westhoff visited a fentanyl precursor business located in a hotel building. More than 200 people, mostly recent college graduates, worked on computers in tiny cubicles selling precursors to make the world’s deadliest drug, he said.
“It blew me away how big a business it was and how organized it was,” he said.
Westhoff, who openly took pictures during his tour, said the company provided rooms, meals by a company chef and karaoke nights for its employees. A sign in a hallway featured Chinese writing and an English slogan: “Chemicals create a better life.”
A few years after his book was published, the US Department of Justice unveiled an indictment against the company’s owner. China eventually banned some precursors to fentanyl, but chemists just tweak the formula and sell different blends that remain legal, Westhoff said.
“Chinese companies obey the law,” Westhoff said. “They want to earn money quietly. The Chinese government does not want to be known to the world as the drug trafficker, but corporations generate taxes and create jobs. Overdose deaths are on the other side of the world.
To prevent cartels from obtaining fentanyl precursors, China should ban pre-precursors and then pre-pre-precursors. But these basic ingredients have legitimate uses in drugs and other products, Westhoff said.
Even if the fentanyl precursor industry could be eradicated in China, manufacturing would shift to India, Russia or another country, he said.
“We will never prevent this from entering our country,” he said.
Westhoff said drug companies have made millions of people in the United States addicted to prescription opioid painkillers. When the dangers became clear, the United States cracked down on pill prescriptions. There was not enough heroin – an illegal opioid made from opium poppy that must be grown, harvested and processed – for addicts who turned to illicit drugs.
“Fentanyl rushed in to fill the void,” Westhoff said.
For a $35,000 investment in fentanyl ingredients and a pill molding machine, drug trafficking organizations can make $10 million to $20 million in profits, according to Dr. Kelly Olson, associate director of clinical affairs at the national drug testing company Millennium Health.
Fentanyl was invented in 1959 by a Belgian chemist looking for a drug superior to morphine. Much more potent than morphine, fentanyl is still used for legitimate purposes under closely monitored conditions, such as surgery in a hospital. It kicks in quickly and then fades quickly, Westhoff said.
This means that illicit users get a quick and powerful high, but then they come down quickly and go into withdrawal after a few hours. They must constantly seek out and use fentanyl, Westhoff said.
Dr Kerri Hecox, who specializes in treating parents struggling with addiction, said prescription drugs like buprenorphine that help with opioid cravings and withdrawal symptoms don’t work well for addiction. to fentanyl.
Instead of helping, buprenorphine triggers extreme withdrawal symptoms in fentanyl users, said Hecox, medical director of the Medford-based Rogue Valley Oasis Center.
Methadone treatment for cravings and withdrawal relief is easier to tolerate for fentanyl users, but methadone distribution is strictly limited in methadone clinics. Regulations need to be relaxed, Hecox said.
In Jackson County and across the country, overdose deaths are skyrocketing, primarily from fentanyl.
“There are a lot of children who really suffer from this. In my clinical practice alone, three young mothers have died this year from fentanyl-related causes. Only one of them was an overdose,” Hecox said. “We talk a lot about overdose deaths. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what we see. »
Among other health complications, people are dying of heart inflammation and sepsis, a condition in which the body’s overwhelming response to infection can lead to tissue damage, organ failure and death. According to Hecox, smoking fentanyl can cause dangerous asthma symptoms.
Boccato, the federal prosecutor, said no matter how hard law enforcement and prosecutors work to intercept fentanyl and hold dealers accountable, they can never cut off the flow of fentanyl.
He said everyone should join the fight against fentanyl.
“We need to educate our young people and our families about the dangers of this drug,” Boccato said.
People need better access to mental and physical health care, including addiction treatment. Local groups like Max’s Mission that distribute free opioid overdose antidote kits have a vital role to play in keeping people alive, Boccato said.
“The only effective way to manage this is to work together,” he said.
Contact Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.