Fear and panic stoked over fentanyl-laced Halloween candy, as US midterms approach
In the lead-up to Halloween, rumors are running wild that trick-or-treaters and their parents need to keep an eye out for fentanyl-laced candy. Fentanyl is pain medication used as a recreational drug and is the cause of tens of thousands of overdose deaths each year. In 2020, over 56,000 people died from synthetic opioid overdoses, primarily fentanyl, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“Watch your kids’ candy this year. The new thing is rainbow fentanyl. Looks like sweet tarts,” one viral tweet runs. News coverage of 15,000 multihued fentanyl pills, hidden in a Lego box, seized in New York City last week exacerbated the panic. “This is every parent’s worst nightmare,” a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent told reporters.
But toxicologists and disinformation experts are calling out the agency for “fear mongering” and inciting moral panic over drugs as the midterms loom. It started when the DEA put out a notice, warning families about a “trend” of rainbow-colored fentanyl pills that looked like candy. The colorful pills, claimed the DEA, were “a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction among kids and young adults.”
Suddenly schools, health authorities, and media outlets were all filled with warnings about how drug cartels were targeting children at Halloween.
Opioid safety advocates have pointed out that drugs are colored differently to differentiate between products, which has nothing to do with marketing to kids at all. This misleading information, says toxicologist Dr. Ryan Marino, is part of an agenda to strengthen support for the war on drugs by spreading outrage.
“Colored drugs exist for a lot of reasons to mark a certain product, and maybe even signify it’s not a real pill (it seems adults also like colorful things),” he tweeted, “but none of the reasons are to ‘trick kids.’”
“It is alarming how many U.S. senators choose not to access any reliable information on drugs before making policies about drugs,” Dr. Marino told me. Lawmakers continue to push policies that focus on criminalization over harm reduction. But those who say the war on drugs has failed argue that federal funds are better spent on decriminalization strategies grounded in science and human rights. “It’s much easier to blame fentanyl for things than it is to have deeper conversations and examine where we have failed people who use drugs. It’s also become heavily politicized, which helps no one,” Dr. Marino said.
Media Matters, a nonprofit misinformation research center, highlighted how the DEA’s statements, coupled with uncritical reporting, serve only to incite panic. As the elections draw closer, conservative politicians have used largely manufactured panic around fentanyl being marketed to children to create further panic about the threat posed by migrants at the border.
The Halloween panic is age-old. Urban legends about “Halloween sadism” have been around since the 1970s — we all remember those tales of razor blades or poison that could be lurking in our pumpkin-shaped buckets. It’s a symptom of public fear. Fentanyl-laced candy is just another example of fear and prejudice being stoked by rhetoric that is rarely grounded in evidence or reason.
IN OTHER NEWS
At least 200 environmental defenders died in 2021. The most dangerous country for environmentalists is Mexico with 54 murders taking place last year, according to a new Global Witness report. Overall Latin America is by far the most dangerous region with three-quarters of attacks being recorded conducted there. But these lethal attacks, alongside smear campaigns carried out by forces within governments and companies, are occurring across every region of the world. One of those killed in 2021 was the “wonderfully bonkers” Joannah Stutchbury. The British activist, who was an ardent defender of the Kiambu forest, was shot dead on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Brazilian election runoffs loom on October 30, a disappointing outcome for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, former president and leftwing challenger to the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. Scientists see Lula as the “science-friendly candidate” for his track record of investing in research and promoting policies that substantially reduced deforestation in the Amazon. If Lula manages to win, though, it could take years for the new president to undo the work of his predecessor and the effects of the crisis in funding Brazil’s scientists have endured. As for the Amazon, it may already be too late: according to new research published last month, vast swathes of the rainforest have already reached a tipping point, and may never recover from Bolsonaro’s reign of destruction.
MESSAGES FROM XINJIANG
Every few days, my phone pings with a message from Urumqi, Xinjiang. It’s rare to have this sort of direct line into a region that is subject to an all-encompassing communications blackout. Uyghurs, the mostly Muslim group native to the region, are banned from making contact with people abroad. But one person finds a way to write to me intermittently to tell me about China’s covid measures, which feel like just one more tool of repression in a region that continues to suffer human rights abuses that some argue amount to genocide.
Xinjiang has been under harsh lockdown conditions for much of the summer. Last week, Urumqi residents were briefly allowed out of their homes, but their freedom was all-too-short lived. “They locked us up again,” my contact messaged me over the weekend. “We are in a darker moment than ever before. Our mental health is on the edge of collapse.” This time, the lockdown appears to have little to do with covid. Year-long preparations for the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party Congress — beginning on Sunday, October 16, and at which Xi Jinping is expected to be given a third term in power — are nearly over and the authorities are determined to maintain total control. “We are guessing they are worried people from Xinjiang will cause problems before the Congress. So they locked us down in the name of pandemic control,” my contact wrote. “What’s wrong with this world?”
WHAT WE’RE READING
Bitcoin is a disaster for the planet, according to a new study in Nature. Its impact on climate change is on par with beef production. “While proponents have offered BTC as representing “digital gold,” from a climate damages perspective it operates more like “digital crude,” the report’s authors write.
This newsletter is curated by Coda’s senior reporter Isobel Cockerell. Frankie Vetch contributed to this edition.