SAN FRANCISCO– The Department of Justice is warning of a rise in so-called rainbow fentanyl – a brightly colored version of the synthetic opioid that dealers use to target teens and young adults.

FentCheck, a California-based nonprofit, says Bay Area businesses are already seeing impacts.

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“It’s becoming a big deal,” said the organization’s founders, Alison Heller and Dean Shold.

FentCheck has partnered with more than 40 Bay Area businesses to distribute test strips that detect fentanyl in places like bars, nightclubs, restaurants, book clubs, tattoo parlors and thrift stores. According to Shold, there has been a 46% increase in demand for test strips over the past four months.

And now they may see why.

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“Rainbow fentanyl,” he said. “It’s appealing to young people and it works.”

Rainbow fentanyl, also known as “rainbow fentanyl,” comes in brightly colored pills or powder that look like sidewalk chalk. Investigators say marketers are using the bright colors to appeal to young teenagers – in some cases, squeezing the drug into food like fruit loops.

Local Bay Area sellers say it seems to work.

“We’ve heard of young people going to the bars we work with being very polite and upfront saying I’m underage, I’m not here to drink, I saw online on the FentCheck card that there are fentanyl test strips here and the staff are happy to bring you strips to the door,” Heller said.

Besides the Bay Area, FentCheck has providers in Los Angeles and cities in New York, North Carolina, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. Shold says businesses in these regions say there are two types of Rainbow Fent resellers that distribute.

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“One of them are pressed pills designed to appeal to children, which contain a form of fentanyl but are not pure fentanyl. These are the standard pressed pills,” Shold said. “The other is the rainbow chalk-like substance which is usually 100% pure fentanyl.”

Shold says some dealers use it to identify that a drug is mixed with felt.

“So now there’s a huge market for fentanyl,” said Dr. Anna Lembke, professor of psychiatry and addiction medicine at Stanford.

Dr. Lembke says that initially fentanyl seeped into the heroin supply, causing people to take it accidentally. But now that has changed.

“Now what we’re seeing is people have become so addicted to opioids that they’re just looking for fentanyl,” Lembke said, adding that the synthetic opioid is 50 times more potent than heroin. “Especially the Youngs.”

According to California’s Overdose Monitoring Dashboard, opioid-related deaths linked to fentanyl appear to be trending younger. In 2020, the highest rate of fentanyl-related overdose deaths in Alameda County was among people between the ages of 30 and 34. While in 2021, this demographic has shifted towards people between the ages of 25 and 29.

“One possible explanation is that we are now moving away from the population of individuals who became addicted to opioids through prescription opioids, and have now moved on to illicit opioids like heroin and fentanyl,” Lembke said. “Access to medicine is incredibly overwhelming.”

That’s why Shold says to always test, especially if you see a trace of color.

“Because these little color features are very likely to represent fentanyl,” he said.

FentCheck is partnering with UC Berkeley to distribute approximately 4,000 fentanyl test strips in select areas of campus starting next week.

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