The Drug Enforcement Agency will designate all illicit analogue forms of the powerful opioid fetanyl as a schedule one drug on an emergency basis, the Department of Justice announced Thursday, equipping the agency to more effectively combat a major contributor to the swelling opioid epidemic.
Fentanyl, as well as a number of powerful derivatives like carfentanil, was already a scheduled substance under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Scheduling is the process, set up by the CSA, by which drugs are classified "depending upon the drug's acceptable medical use and the drug's abuse or dependency potential." Schedule one drugs have high potential for abuse and no redeeming medical or industrial use. Fentanyl itself, which is sometimes prescribed as a painkiller, is a schedule two drug.
However, overseas producers of fentanyl often seek to dodge U.S. regulations by making small changes to the molecular structure of the substances they ship to the United States. This creates fentanyl analogues not technically scheduled but which still produce the same powerful and dangerous high.
Previously, one DEA official explained, the administration had been playing "whack-a-mole," prosecuting such cases under the Federal Analogue Act. That act permits prosecution for the trafficking of drugs which are "substantially similar" to those scheduled under the CSA. However, each prosecution requires individual expert testimony, making the process cumbersome and resource consuming for the DEA and federal prosecutors.
The new move, spurred by the increasingly dire circumstances of the opioid epidemic, means that the DEA will schedule all synthetic fentanyl derivatives en masse, easing arrest and prosecution burdens substantially.
"President Trump has made it a cornerstone of his presidency to combat the deadly drug crisis in America, and today the Department of Justice is taking an important step toward halting the rising death toll caused by illicit fentanyls in the United States. By scheduling all fentanyls, we empower our law enforcement officers and prosecutors to take swift and necessary action against those spreading these deadly poisons," said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than heroin, was the number one cause of drug overdose death in 2016, accounting for approximately forty percent of said deaths. Drug overdose death is the leading cause of injury death in the United States, and the leading overall cause of death among Americans under 50.
"Today's action represents just one step in the ongoing fight to battle the opioid epidemic," said Acting DEA Administrator Robert W. Patterson. "DEA is committed to using all of its tools to aggressively fight and address the opioid crisis and growing fentanyl problem plaguing the United States."
The scheduling will go into effect 30 days after DEA officially publishes its notice of intent, and will remain in effect for at least two years, with an option for an additional year if certain conditions are met. Sessions called on Congress to "do their part by permanently scheduling these lethal substances."
The new policy echoes proposals by the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which issued its draft final report last week. The commission, chaired by Gov. Chris Christie (R., N.J.), called for enhancement of federal sentencing penalties for distributing fentanyl and its analogues, as well as the express targeting of drug organizations which distribute fentanyl and enhanced detection measures for use by U.S. Customs and Border Protections and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.