Federal legislators are awaiting President Donald Trump's signature on a bill that would temporarily extend Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) ban on chemical variants of the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
An existing ban on fentanyl copycats -- or analogues -- is set to expire Thursday. In the meantime, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois Steve Weinhoeft is urging Congress to make the ban permanent.
"Fentanyl is a serial killer drug," he said. "The DEA continues to intercept variations of it being illicitly imported into the United States and distributed by criminal networks, causing overdose deaths across the country, including here in Southern Illinois.
"I urge Congress to extend the ban on fentanyl analogues so law enforcement will have the tools we need to keep our communities safe."
Fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than morphine and, when prescribed legally, is an effective pain killer. Copycat versions were classified by the DEA as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning they are highly addictive but have no medical purpose.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 70,000 in the United States have died from drug overdoses in 2017. Forty-one percent of those overdoses involved fentanyl or an illegal copycat.
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"We see those same trends continuing here in the Southern District of Illinois," Weinhoeft said. "Last month, the Madison County coroner reported that more of the drug overdose deaths his office reviewed in 2019 involved fentanyl. The stories of local families impacted by those deaths are heartbreaking."
In February 2018, a White House declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency, which gave the DEA emergency regulatory authority to include all non-scheduled fentanyl analogues on the list of banned substances.
Both the Republican-led Senate and Democrat-led House of Representatives have approved legislation to extend the DEA's authority.
But Weinhoeft and others in the U.S. Justice Department have lobbied Congress to make the ban permanent and class-wide, meaning all fentanyl analogues would be listed in the same legal category with heroin and cocaine.
Before the DEA was granted emergency regulatory authority, the Food and Drug Administration considered each new fentanyl variant that appeared on a case-by-case basis.
"We increasingly find it manufactured illegally in China and Mexico, trafficked by cartels into the United States and sold on the streets at great societal costs," Weinhoeft said. "Because federal law identifies and regulates dangerous drugs according to their chemical properties, the ever-changing permutation of these fentanyl analogues pose a significant problem. If a particular chemical compound is not listed on the schedule of controlled substances, law enforcement is powerless to take action against it."
According to an article in The New York Times, opposition to a permanent ban on the fentanyl analogues has come from criminal justice reform groups, who want the Government Accountability Office to have time to study how a policy will affect scientific research.