ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Drug-involved overdose deaths, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids, are an increasing public health problem that harms countless communities and families. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, drug poisonings are the leading killer of Americans between the ages of 18 and 45. A newer trend of street drug flagged by the DEA is “rainbow fentanyl,” a brightly-colored powdered version of the toxic opioid that is highly attractable and deadly.
The Department of Defense’s goal is to raise awareness of this issue in order to decrease the number of lives impacted by hundreds of daily fatal overdoses.
What is fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid primarily used for pain relief. Generally, fentanyl is prescribed by a medical provider to treat extreme pain following a procedure or surgery or to help with the chronic pain management conditions such as advanced-stage cancer. Often it is prescribed to patients who do not receive a therapeutic response from other opioids, such as morphine.
Despite fentanyl’s effective use for serious pain management concerns, it should never be used for short-term pain due to being addictive.
Fentanyl comes in many forms, including powder, liquid, a nasal spray, skin patch or sometimes as a “lollipop” or tablet that dissolves like a cough drop. It is difficult to differentiate powdered fentanyl from other substances; therefore, it can be ingested unknowingly if mixed with other drugs, to include cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and meth. Mixing drugs is never safe because the effects from combining drugs are more unrecognizable and unpredictable than use of an individual drug.
Why is this topic important?
More than 150 people die every day from overdoses related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. According to the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, in 2020, more than 56,000 deaths involving synthetic opioids (other than methadone) occurred in the United States, which is more deaths than from any other type of opioid. Synthetic opioid-involved death rates increased by more than 56 percent from 2019 to 2020, and according to CDC data, synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) contributed to 62 percent of overdose deaths in 2020.
According to the CDC, fentanyl has been found to be 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin and is often manufactured in the form of a “fake pill” as a marketing tactic for distributors. The mixing of fentanyl into other substances is often done to manufacture a cheaper substance; however, due to the strong potency, the combination of substances can quickly result in an accidental overdose and unexpected death. Even in very small doses, it can be deadly.
Dangers of Rainbow Fentanyl
Multi-colored fentanyl pills, nicknamed “rainbow fentanyl,” come in a variety of bright colors, shapes and sizes, including chalk, pills, powder and blocks, potentially making them more attractive to children and young people. A DEA Health Advisory issued in September warns about these substances because they can resemble candy; it is important that parents be aware of this new fentanyl form in order to inform them of the potential serious risk to children.
Despite claims that certain colors may be more potent than others, there is no indication through DEA’s laboratory testing that this is the case. Every color, shape and size of fentanyl should be considered extremely dangerous.
It is important for all communities to be on the lookout for fentanyl, to include the newer trend of rainbow-colored fentanyl and to understand its highly-toxic and deadly nature. The increase in fentanyl overdose deaths highlights the need to expand 1) overdose prevention education, 2) availability of substance use treatment, 3) and awareness of effective overdose response methods.
Here are some resources for more information:
- Too Much to Lose: Too Much to Lose is a Defense Department educational campaign, aligned to the Defense Health Agency, for the U.S. military. The mission of the campaign is to inform Service members on the facts and risks related to prescription drug misuse and illicit and prohibited drug use including marijuana, hemp and CBD that can impact their health, career and overall well-being. The site supports the DOD’s efforts to build and sustain a ready and resilient force by providing resources and information to service members so they use prescription drugs as prescribed and avoid illicit or prohibited substances.
- Military OneSource: Substance Abuse – The Essentials: Understanding and identifying a substance use problem can be the beginning of a better life. Learn how to identify the warning signs of substance use disorders and where to get help.
- Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP): The Army Substance Abuse Program (ASAP) mission is to strengthen the overall fitness and effectiveness of the Army's workforce. ASAP enhances the combat readiness of Soldiers by providing guidance and leadership on all non-clinical alcohol and other drug policy issues; developing, establishing, administering, and evaluating non-clinical alcohol and other drug (AOD) abuse prevention, education, and training programs; overseeing the Military, Drug-Free Workplace and Department of Transportation biochemical (drug) testing programs; and overseeing local ASAP offices worldwide.
- Army Substance Abuse Program (Substance Use Disorder Clinical Care): Substance Use Disorder Clinical Care (previously known as ASAP-Rehab) is the Army's model for providing outpatient substance use disorder and other behavioral health care in an integrated, unit-aligned, and co-located manner.
- CDC Fentanyl information page
The Defense Centers for Public Health-Aberdeen advances Joint Force health protection with agile public health enterprise solutions in support of the National Defense Strategy.
NOTE: The mention of any non-federal entity and/or its products is for informational purposes only, and not to be construed or interpreted, in any manner, as federal endorsement of that non-federal entity or its products.