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A new Florida law cracks down on 'rainbow fentanyl.' Will it help?

In August 2022, the Drug Enforcement Administration and law enforcement partners seized brightly colored rainbow fentanyl pills in 18 states.
Drug Enforcement Administration
In August 2022, the Drug Enforcement Administration and law enforcement partners seized brightly colored rainbow fentanyl pills in 18 states.

The bill is meant to address fears that dealers are targeting young people with candy-colored fentanyl, but experts say there's little evidence that's happening. They worry more jail time won't solve the state's drug problem.

A new Florida law that will go into effect this fall stiffens criminal penalties for people who sell or traffic fentanyl that looks like candy. Some recovery advocates fear it will do little to curb the drug epidemic.

The bill, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday, establishes a three-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for people who make, sell or deliver fentanyl products that look like candy or vitamins – something like a colorful pill with a design pressed on it.

Adults who give them to minors could face life in prison, or at least 25 years, along with a $1 million fine.

“They need to be treated like murderers because they are murdering people,” DeSantis said.

The governor said drug manufacturers are putting fentanyl in things like Halloween candy and targeting kids with it. The Drug Enforcement Administration made similar claims last year.

But drug policy experts were skeptical of that, and the DEA failed to produce substantial evidence. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement acknowledged in a Halloween public safety flyer this fall that there is “little evidence drug producers are intentionally targeting children with candy-colored pills.”

Experts say colorful tablets are often used to mimic prescription drugs, such as Adderall, or to distinguish products on the illicit market.

Fentanyl is deadly and Maritza Perez-Medina, director of federal affairs with the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, said it’s important to curb its spread. But she said policies that focus on jail time aren’t effective.

Many people who use drugs often sell and share them among friends and family who use too, she said. They may not realize the products are laced with fentanyl.

“If they think they're going to suffer consequences from calling 911 if someone is overdosing, or they themselves are struggling with substance use disorders and are seeking help, they may not want to do that if they think it's going to come at a cost,” said Perez-Medina.

She added drug producers often respond to crackdowns on specific drugs by altering their chemical compounds to evade the law, which can potentially lead to more dangerous substances entering the market.

States should invest more in recovery and outreach, she said, and make harm reduction tools including Narcan and fentanyl test strips more widely available.

At the bill signing, DeSantis also touted state programs to educate kids about the dangers of drugs. He also talked about the Coordinated Opioid Recovery (CORE) Network, which launched last fall and connects overdose survivors with addiction treatment.

The law is scheduled to go into effect on Oct. 1.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.