Lethal drug that looks like candy is killing Arizona teens. And they’re using social media to get it.

Fentanyl now comes in different colors, making the dangerous pills look like candy. Kids call...
Fentanyl now comes in different colors, making the dangerous pills look like candy. Kids call them "rainbows" or "skittles."(Talk Now AZ)

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PHOENIX (Talk Now AZ) – Those harmless-looking pastel pills above are killing Arizona teens. Each pill contains a lethal drug called fentanyl. Or maybe it doesn’t. It’s impossible to tell just by looking at it. Each time a teen – or anybody, for that matter - pops one of them, they gamble with their lives

The fatal dose of fentanyl might be in the first pill somebody takes or the 100th. “It’s like playing Russian roulette,” said Shelly Mowrey of Talk Now AZ, which exists to help parents like you keep your kids safe. “I’ve had parents tell me their child took a pill with enough fentanyl to kill four people in it. You just never know what’s in these pills.”

And cutting a pill in half does not make it a safer dose. Made solely to fill a drug cartel's coffers, the pills are not manufactured with any precision, and, of course, there's no oversight or even concern about safety. As long as they get paid, the dealers could not care less about what happens to the people who take their poison. If – make that when – a customer overdoses and dies, they'll just recruit another. And another. And another. There are plenty of potential victims. And your teen could be their next prey.

We’ve been warned for years about counterfeit pills called M30s or “Mexican Oxy.” We know what to look for because we’ve seen countless pictures and videos of them. They’re blue and stamped with an M on one side and a 30 on the other side. We know they’re not real OxyContin or Percocet. We know they’re dangerous. Now disguised in pretty pastel colors, still with the telltale M30, these deadly counterfeit pills have evolved. New look. Same danger. “They’re known as ‘rainbows’ or ‘skittles,’” explained Mowrey. Parents need to know how teenagers are getting their hands on rainbows and skittles.

It's shockingly easy

When you picture a drug dealer in your mind, you might see a person hanging out on a street corner, furtively looking around as they surreptitiously exchange cash for pills with a passer-by or a driver paused at a stop sign. That might have been accurate once upon a time. But just as the drugs have evolved, so have the people pushing them.

Like most of us, they've kept up with the times and the technology that has become ubiquitous. They're savvy and sophisticated and have weaponized two things many of us, including your teenagers, use every day – probably several times a day – without a second thought.

Cellphones and social media

How many times a day do you check your cellphone? How many of those check-ins are on social media? Whatever the number is for you, you can be sure it's higher for your teens. Probably much higher. And drug dealers know it. They go where the teens, their customers – their victims – hang out. Instagram. Snapchat. TikTok. Facebook Messenger.

“Parents don’t realize that there is a lot of drug-selling activity on those social media apps,” Mowrey said.

Whatever technology your kids use to communicate, so do drug dealers. They know how kids think. What they want. How to get to them. How to “make friends” with them. How to build trust and get them to try something they might not otherwise.

“As soon as a kid says, ‘Hey, you know, I’ve had a bad day,’ or ‘I’m not feeling great,’ or ‘I’m a little bit stressed,’ a [dealer] will offer one of these pills that they say is a legitimate prescription,” Mowrey explained. “It’s not. There’s no prescription medication in these pills. It’s all fentanyl and binder material.” They might look like the real deal. They’re designed that way. But no matter what anybody might say, make no mistake, any pill that does not come from a legitimate pharmacy is counterfeit.

“My kid is too smart for that,” you’re thinking. Yes, they are. Until they’re not. “Smarts” has very little to do with it.

It starts with “friends” and likes

In this age of social media, followers and likes are everything to many kids. They’re happy to make “friends” with somebody who compliments them, understands them, and seems to be just like them. The problem is you never know who is really behind the profile picture and comments. Drug dealers are skilled manipulators. Their business depends on being convincing.

And social media, which is meant to connect people, is the conduit. It's great to keep up with neighbors, far-flung friends, relatives across the county, and people you knew in high school or college. It's fun to meet new people with similar interests. But there's a definite dark side to social media.

“I think that there is a false sense of security in the way that parents and adults consume social media versus the way our kids and teenagers and preteens are consuming social media,” Mowrey said.

Social networks claim to be doing everything they can to protect our kids, but in reality, that's questionable at best. They might shut down some accounts, but new ones crop up almost immediately. It's the worst game ever of Whack-a-Mole.

“It’s just like ordering a pizza.”

These days, especially since the pandemic, it's easier than ever to have anything you might want or need delivered to your door – a pizza or any other meal, groceries, the latest must-have from Amazon, legit prescriptions and medications. And fake ones.

Amy Neville knows that first-hand. Her son Alex, who had just turned 14, died of a fentanyl overdose. She's the one who found him.

“He looked like he had just fallen asleep on his beanbag chair – except that he was blue,” she recently told Arizona’s Family anchor and reporter Jared Dillingham. “He wasn’t breathing. He was cold. I knew right away.”

Neville believes Alex used a Visa gift card to buy pills from a dealer on a social media app.

“It’s super easy,” Alex’s younger sister Eden said. “It’s just like ordering a pizza.”

It's up to us to protect our kids and help them learn to protect themselves. It's the only way to keep them alive.

Deciphering emojis

“Talk Now AZ strongly encourages parents to monitor and check their kids’ cell phones at least two times a week,” Mowrey said.

Kids on social media chat in emojis. Do you know what they're really saying? Like everything else, the language and codes change, but the Drug Enforcement Administration recently put out a guide to help parents and caregivers decipher what they see on their kids' phones.

One emoji to watch for in particular is the electric plug. (🔌) It could mean your teen is “plugged in” and chatting with a drug dealer. Keep an eye out for 🍁, as well. The DEA says it’s a “universal emoji for drugs.”

The DEA's list is not all-inclusive, but it's a start. And there is something parents need to keep in mind.

Emoji reference guide
"Criminal organizations, including drug traffickers .. are using emojis to buy and sell counterfeit pill and other illicit drugs on social media and through e-commerce."(DEA.gov)

“Emojis, on their own, should not be indicative of illegal activity,” the DEA says. “But coupled with a change in behavior, change in appearance, or significant loss/increase in income should be a reason to start an important conversation."

The world is a very different place than when today’s parents were growing up. Conversations that might have waited a year or two back then need to happen early and often. Remember how “Stop, drop, and roll” was hammered into our young brains? This is like that. But while you probably have not caught fire and used “stop, drop, and roll,” your kids, in all likelihood, will encounter drugs at some point in their lives. How they handle it depends on what you do now.

It's not just a single conversation

The first conversations should start when your kids are in elementary school, Mowrey said. “Explain to your child that you never take a medication from anyone that doesn’t come from a bottle, that doesn’t have your name on it,” she suggested. You can have that conversation in first grade.

When your child hits middle-school age, build on that by teaching them that the pills they might see online are fake and can be deadly. Ask them if they or their friends have seen anything like that, or if somebody has offered them a pill.

“And then, as you get into high school, you’re carrying on that conversation,” Mowrey said. And while you’re doing that, you’re also looking ahead to college or when they move out.

The first conversations should start when your kids are in elementary school.
The first conversations should start when your kids are in elementary school.(Talk Now AZ)

Mowrey also explained one thing every teen and young adult needs to know. It's about the Good Samaritan Law.

“What the Good Samaritan Law is that if a teenager is ever present at the scene of an overdose or someone drinking too much and passing out, if they call 911 to report that … [and] an ambulance comes, your child will not be arrested and they will not be prosecuted, even if they’ve been using substances themselves,” she said. “That’s especially important for your child heading off to college. … If they call for help, they will not be arrested."

Because every teen is different, you must figure out the right approach for your kids.

Have a rescue plan

“Here is one thing that works for every kid across the board – having a rescue plan,” Mowrey said. It’s very simple. Agree on a code phrase that they can text you if they find themselves in a situation where they’re not comfortable. Any situation. Make sure that they know that you will go to them anytime, anywhere. Mowrey did it with her son. Their code was, “I forgot to feed the dog.” That was all he needed to text.

Mowrey also suggests creating a contract between you and your child that clearly lays out what they can and cannot do with their phone and what they will be expected to give you in terms of access.

There’s no silver bullet when it comes to keeping our kids safe. What we can do, however, is implement multiple layers of protection. “We try to put everything in place that we can to help prevent something from happening,” Mowrey said.