“The greatest source of lawlessness in America isn’t Republicans,” Senator Marco Rubio wrote in a Fox News editorial published on Monday, “it’s the southern border, where the president’s failed policies are allowing drug dealers to feed the worst overdose crisis in our country’s history.” Rubio was not merely trying to draw fire away from Republicans after Biden’s speech condemning the party’s fascist turn. The Florida senator was blaming Biden’s alleged inaction for the deaths of children and young people. Citing the Drug Enforcement Administration, Rubio claimed kids were being targeted by cartels with multicolored pills. “The most obvious instance of this trend is the pills of ‘rainbow fentanyl.’”
Kids and those who care for them are in peril from mere proximity to fentanyl pills, claimed House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in a Fox News appearance on Sunday, referencing an incident in which a 13-year-old was arrested for allegedly possessing fentanyl pills at school, discovered by a school employee who McCarthy said “OD’d, not because he took the pills, simply because it touched him.” But that’s not possible with such minimal exposure, as experts have repeatedly pointed out. Nevertheless, McCarthy went on. “Every single city in America is now a border city based upon the Democratic policies of bringing millions of people across this border from 160 different countries,” he warned. “But it’s not just people. It’s terrorists. And now it’s drugs.”
These wild stories are a variation on an already widespread right-wing preoccupation. As The Washington Post observed in April, “The idea that Biden is allowing drugs to cross the border, and that he is to blame for overdose deaths, is firmly in the GOP mainstream.” Fentanyl and the border are nearly synonymous in Republican rhetoric. But as midterm politicking kicked into full swing with the end of summer, Republicans have settled on fearmongering about drugs and the border as one of their central campaign messages.
“The destruction and loss seen in our communities due to America’s raging opioid epidemic is only growing worse as the crisis created by President Biden’s failed policies on our southern border continues,” said Florida Senator Rick Scott, the head of the Republican group trying to win control of the Senate, when he introduced the Stop Fentanyl Package Act at a round table with Florida sheriffs last month. Scott’s counterpart for the GOP’s House campaign, Representative Tom Emmer, went on Fox News Sunday to preview how “security” would be the driving message of Republicans’ campaign strategy. “It’s about the southwestern border, being run over by cartels who are terrorizing American citizens,” he said. “It’s about every community in this country having to deal with a fentanyl crisis of parents wondering if their child’s going to be the one that dies next.” In a recent call for more anti-immigration enforcement, legislators from Montana, including U.S. Senator Steve Daines, state Attorney General Austin Knudsen, and Governor Greg Gianforte stood behind a sign reading simply, “Stop Fentanyl. Secure the Border.” While those demands may lack the more fringy flourishes like “rainbow” drugs, they come from the same punitive, xenophobic place.
This narrative already lends itself to conspiracy theories. Months back, Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance both said that not only is Biden responsible for overdose deaths, but they are an intentional act meant to kill off people likely to vote against him. So when a new wave of reports broke late this summer—of cartels luring children into drug use with brightly colored pills, of people nearly dying by just touching the stuff—they fit right in. These stories are also well timed, amping up the fearmongering just as Republicans are honing their midterm messaging. Associating “rainbow fentanyl” with Biden is even approaching the mainstream, as seen at a recent press briefing: “This is being designed to target children,” asserted Fox News White House correspondent Peter Doocy, with a Fox chyron below reading, DEA Has Seized Rainbow Fentanyl in 18 States. “What is this president doing about it?”
The rapid spread of this panic—a uniquely lethal rainbow fentanyl being smuggled over the border to addict American children—is refueling the Republicans’ existing drug narrative, as in the Rubio op-ed attacking the Biden administration, and Scott’s proposals. Worse, these stories have been granted a bit of extra sensationalized respectability because they now align with warnings coming from federal drug enforcement officials. When Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley claimed this “new” fentanyl that “seems designed to resemble candy” demands tougher border enforcement, he cited a DEA press release from August 30. The release stated that rainbow fentanyl was “a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults,” a quote from DEA head Anne Milgram, who was selected by Biden.
For anti-immigrant drug warriors, the fentanyl-for-kids narrative is a two-for-one deal. They get to characterize Biden’s alleged inaction as a threat to children, when in reality, there isn’t a tremendous difference between the amount of fentanyl seized at the border at the end of the Trump administration and during Biden’s. And the story deflects from the devastation clearly caused by the still largely bipartisan “war on drugs.” Drug criminalization increases overdoses, not candy-colored pills.
Colored fentanyl pills in circulation are neither new nor a ploy to harm kids. It’s just the kind of story the American drug war thrives on, a shocking narrative drawing a connection from seizures of colored pills to cartels deliberately selling drugs to children. And it seems to be built on an escalating game of telephone, from law enforcement agencies’ social media pages to local news reports. On July 9, the Monterey Police Department in California posted a photo of a baggie of colored powder they called “Fentanyl in rainbow/candy coloring,” claiming they had seized some in two arrests, and advised parents to talk to their kids. On August 16, Multnomah County deputies reported seizing colored fentanyl from one person’s house and said they were worried children might ingest it by mistake. To their credit, Multnomah’s public warning included quotes from harm reduction service providers, who emphasized that anyone who intended to use colored fentanyl should follow the usual guidelines to go slow and not use alone.
It took the involvement of a Customs and Border Protection official to propel the story to sustained national attention. The director of the port of entry in Nogales, Arizona, has regularly shared photos of fentanyl seizures on his Twitter account. Port Director Michael W. Humphries wrote that the “colored fentanyl pills with the appearance of candy” reportedly seized on August 17 “could be the start of a trend with Transnational Criminal Organizations targeting younger users.” Ever since, public health experts have had to counter this story. “Kids are getting pills, and some of them are dying from them,” the co-founder of the nonprofit drug testing resource FentCheck told Time, but the rainbow fentanyl stories are “absolutely a distraction.”
While there had been other reports of the pills from other law enforcement agencies, it was the Nogales story, with the CBP connection, that firmly linked “rainbow fentanyl” to the existing Republican narrative about Biden and the border. Fox News, The Daily Caller, Glenn Beck’s The Blaze—in the last few weeks, all have warned about rainbow fentanyl as a threat to children and directly blamed the Biden administration for letting it happen. With these allegations of the border being to blame came the usual myths and moral panic. On Fox and Friends, one host claimed the pills were wrapped in paper “like salt-water taffy,” and that touching them could kill. (It can’t.) “This isn’t the new sponsor for Pride month, folks,” said one Blaze host, “it’s actually a whole lot worse.”