Behind the Urban Legends About Drugs in Your Halloween Candy

There’s a new monster in town this spooky season. On August 30, the Drug Enforcement Agency released a warning about “rainbow fentanyl” — colorful batches of the potent synthetic opioid reportedly found in drug busts across 26 states. The warning described it as “a new method used by drug cartels to sell fentanyl made to look like candy to children and young people.” 

But according to a recent NBC interview, “the [DEA] has seen nothing that indicates that the pills will be related to [Halloween] or that drug traffickers are putting it into Halloween candy.” Outlets like Snopes and Rolling Stone found no credible evidence to indicate that parents need to look out for rainbow fentanyl on Halloween. But once the DEA rang the what-about-the-children bell, it couldn’t be unrung.

Local police departments, county coroners, news media, elected officials, and a regional DEA spokeswoman have warned parents to be on the lookout for rainbow fentanyl in their children’s Halloween candy. Those warnings have turned into viral copypasta, circulating on the Facebook and Twitter timelines of concerned citizens. Rainbow fentanyl is sometimes even stamped with an image of Mickey Mouse, the posts warn, or comes in fun shapes, such as bones.

People desperately want to believe in the existence of this villain, a perverse stranger waiting for the perfect opportunity to poison an innocent child. But truth is often scarier than fiction, and the call is coming from inside the house.

As with any moral panic, rainbow fentanyl is a powerful vehicle for creating fear because it contains kernels of reality: Illicit fentanyl has contributed to astronomical death rates in the overdose crisis; youth overdose rates are increasing; and fentanyl is sometimes pressed into pills of different colors. Increasingly, though, these facts have become entangled with misinformation.

Despite the urgency of the DEA’s August warning, multicolored fentanyl pills are not a new phenomenon — they have been appearing on the street for years. But misleading, viral stories about who is being targeted with these drugs can cause real harm and may exacerbate the War on Drugs.

Rainbow fentanyl and the history of urban legends about Halloween candy

According to urban legends expert and University of Delaware professor Joel Best, news of a drug that emerges in the weeks before Halloween primes people for moral panic. Rainbow fentanyl is just the latest example in the United States’s long-standing tradition of urban legends about contaminated Halloween candy — or in this case, a harmful substance being targeted to kids around Halloween. 

Best calls this phenomenon “Halloween sadism.” It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as the 1950s: A stranger might put anything in a piece of candy, such as a razor blade, straight pin, or rat poison, then distribute it to naive trick-or-treaters, Best explains. For decades now, parents have been warned by local police departments and newspaper columnists to check their children’s candy for signs of tampering, or even have it X-rayed at the emergency room. According to Best’s research, there have been 114 reported cases of Halloween sadism since 1958. None have been substantiated, he says.

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