Skepticism

Rainbow Fentanyl in Halloween Candy???

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Transcript:

Well, spooky season is here and I could not be happier: I’ve already put up my giant spider and spider web, my fractal skeletons, and my yard flamingulas, and I’m ready to greet my neighborhood’s trick or treaters with a big bowl of rainbow fentanyl. That’s right, I went all out this year and spent $750,000 on a bowl of drugs that I will give out, for free, to small children who will then eat them and die. For…reasons. Mmmm, death candy!

This Halloween life hack never would have occurred to me had I not seen this very professional public service announcement from America’s greatest political leaders. Okay, real talk, I’ve never tried fentanyl and I don’t know anyone who has ever tried it but I’m pretty sure one of the warning signs of a user is acting the way Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy is acting in this PSA. Seriously, I hope someone is standing by with narcan.

Okay, so first of all, fentanyl is an extremely strong synthetic opioid that is sold as is but is also sometimes used by unscrupulous dealers to beef up or even replace pricier heroin, which directly leads to overdoses and deaths as fentanyl is about 50 times more potent than heroin. It’s a real problem: check out this chart from the National Institutes of Health, which shows that fentanyl deaths have absolutely shot through the roof in the past few years.

Like most popular street drugs, fentanyl now comes in a variety of fun colors, which lead the US Drug Enforcement Agency to issue this statement at the end of this summer warning that “rainbow fentanyl” is a new “trend…used by drug cartels to sell highly addictive and potentially deadly fentanyl made to look like candy to children and young people.”

That is…that is extremely stupid. A gram of fentanyl currently goes for about $150, okay? Literally no one who sells drugs for a living is going to give their drugs away for free to literal CHILDREN. Like, no, the average 10-year old isn’t going to fall for the old “the first one is free” scam because when he gets addicted and comes around for the second hit, he isn’t going to have $150 to spend. He had $10 but he spent it on an Insane Clown Posse skin in Fortnite, so sorry, he doesn’t have anything left over for FENTANYL.

So why are dealers selling colorful fentanyl? Because it’s good marketing, you idiots. Yeah children like bright colors but you know who else does? Literally everyone else. Dealers use colors and symbols and cartoon characters to distinguish their product from everybody else’s. They’ve been doing this for ages – check out these incredible works of art from LSD dealers in the 1970s and beyond. They didn’t do it to appeal to little kids, they did it to let the customer know where their acid was coming from and also because it looked fucking awesome.

The rainbow Fentanyl Halloween freakout isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. The past few years have seen a noticeable increase in parents and local news anchors losing their minds over cannabis edibles, which, yes, look and kind of taste like delicious candy and chocolate and cookies. But again, I paid good money for these drugs! I’m not about to just give them away to children who won’t even appreciate them! The worst thing that could happen is if I get super high and drop a weed peanut butter cup into a bowl of regular peanut butter cups and then somehow don’t notice and give it away to a kid, and THEN the worst thing that could happen is the kid gets couch locked for a few hours. We’d both be annoyed, trust me.

The “edible” Halloween scare ALSO wasn’t new: people have been freaked out about weirdos drugging trick-or-treaters for decades now. In the 1960s it was just straight up “poison” that people were worried about–not dealers trying to “hook” kids on drugs but psychopaths actually trying to kill them.

While no child has ever died from poisoned Halloween candy given to them by a stranger or a neighbor, something similar and really creepy did happen in 1974. That Halloween, Ronald Clark O’Bryan took his son and daughter trick-or-treating with a neighbor and their two kids. The kids knocked on the door of a house where no one answered, and figuring no one was home the kids and the neighbor moved on to the next house. O’Bryan lagged behind, and when he caught up with them a little later, he claimed that someone DID come to the door eventually, and that he got five Pixy Stix from them. If you’re not aware, Pixy Stix are straws filled with flavored sugar.

In this case, though, they were filled with cyanide. O’Bryan’s son ate it and died, and luckily the other kids who got the candy didn’t eat them. In fact, O’Bryan gave one candy to a 10-year old he knew from church, and when his parents heard about the poisoning they ran to his room to find him asleep holding the unopened Pixy Stick, having been unable to remove the staple.

It turns out that O’Bryan had taken out life insurance policies on his kids and was looking to off them, and he gave out the other Pixy Stix to cover up his actions, claiming it was a random neighbor who gave them out. It didn’t work: he was arrested a few days later, he was convicted by the following summer, and he was executed in 1984.

The idea of poisoned Halloween candy got another boost in 1982. That October, the public became aware of a series of deaths in the Chicago area that were traced back to bottles of Tylenol, which had been laced with cyanide and placed back on the shelves to be sold to random people. Seven people died, and the killer was never found. “Fun” bonus fact: adding cyanide to Tylenol only makes that particular drug slightly more likely to kill you. Seriously, acetaminophen is a trash drug that performs about the same as a placebo and is responsible for 500 deaths a year in the US alone. Anyway, that Halloween, candy sales plummeted and people were terrified that their kids would be killed by poisoned candy.

So yeah, while there ARE sociopaths out there who have attempted and sometimes succeeded in murdering people by poisoning things that people think will be safe, no child has actually been killed by a stranger handing out Halloween candy. And that includes candy or apples that are filled with razor blades or needles, even though those objects are way easier for the average psychopath to get their hands on than cyanide. Sociologist Joel Best at University of Delaware has studied “Halloween Sadism” as an urban legend for decades now, and he found no evidence of strangers putting sharp objects in candy and handing them out to trick-or-treaters. What he did find were scenarios that were either kids pranking other kids without really thinking things through, or people purposely putting objects into their own candy to get attention or a nice lawsuit. And in all those cases, no one has ever died or been more seriously injured than needing a few stitches. I mean, the thought of it still makes me shudder, but…yeah, no deaths.

And let’s be honest, that shuddering? That’s what Halloween is all about, right? Getting all freaked out about something. And over the years, our most popular horror movies and urban legends may help tell us about what we as a society are most truly afraid of: sexuality, Communists, forced pregnancy, white supremacy, mental illness, religious fanaticism. Sociopaths that poison trick-or-treaters is clearly a classic, possibly because it speaks to a society in decline, where we feel disconnected from one another, where we don’t know our own neighbors and what secrets they may be hiding. “Rainbow fentanyl”, like cannabis edibles before it, may speak to our fears about addiction, in a society that shuns addicts as degenerate “others” who are in their situation because of their own inherent badness. Of course those addicts would then reach out to snatch away our children’s innocence! That’s how new addicts get made!

It’s all very interesting, and while I love exploring the underpinnings of a good urban legend, let’s not forget the true scary story here: more than 50,000 people died by overdosing on fentanyl in 2020, and we can stop that number from continuing to rise with sensible public health policies: destigmatize addiction, make treatment a part of mainstream medicine, provide comprehensive healthcare to people who need it, provide treatment instead of incarceration for addicts, and train more people – police officers, health professionals, and the general public – how to identify and treat overdoses. For instance, naloxone is an opioid antagonist, meaning that it’s a drug that almost immediately temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. It can buy a person enough time to get to a hospital and get longer term treatment, meaning that it can truly save a life (and it won’t hurt a person if they’re ODing on some other drug, meaning you can use it even if you’re not sure the problem is an opioid). And you – yes, YOU! – can get naloxone at your local pharmacy without a prescription. You may even be able to get it mailed to you: just go to NextDistro.org to find the best way to get it in your area. It’s small enough to toss in your purse, and important enough that should you ever need it, you can become someone’s superhero.
That’s all for this video, but I did want to close with a sincere thank you to all of my patrons. For some reason, YouTube demonetized several of my videos last month, meaning that the only way I can afford to keep making videos this month is because of the kind-hearted people who have pledged to chip in for each video I make. Patrons get most of my videos early and ad-free, plus depending on the level they also get monthly livestream Q&As, weekly newsletters, and even an annual December holiday card! Please head to patreon.com/rebecca if you’d like to join the fun, but regardless thank you so much for watching, liking, commenting, and subscribing.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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