Federal drug enforcement officials on Tuesday pleaded with senators to permanently ban illicit fentanyl, a powerful opioid responsible for thousands of deaths across the country.
If the government doesn’t take action now, the officials warned, it might not have the power to ban fentanyl knock-offs in the future.
Amanda Liskamm, who heads the Justice Department’s opioid prevention and enforcement efforts, said the department would “enter unknown territory” if the ban is not made permanent.
“It would not be an exaggeration to say that given what we know about the dynamism and rapid pace of illicit drug production we see today, the synthetic opioid that will be killing Americans in 2021 or 2022 has not yet been invented,” she told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In February 2018, the government instituted a two-year emergency ban classifying all fentanyl knock-offs as Schedule 1 drugs, similar to heroin. With the temporary fix scheduled to expire, the Drug Enforcement Administration worries any lapse could hinder efforts to combat the opioid crisis.
DEA Chief Operations Officer Greg Cherundolo said his office has seen “positive impacts” since the temporary ban went into effect, including a slowing of the rate at which new fentanyl imitations are introduced into the black market and the elimination of drug cartels’ incentive to create new substances to evade detection.
Fentanyl is classified as a Schedule II drug, meaning it is both highly addictive but also has a legitimate medical purpose. The temporary ban deemed the knock-offs as Schedule 1, meaning it has no medicinal use.
Fentanyl is about 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more powerful than heroin. The lab-made knock-offs — substances designed to imitate a particular drug, but are not identical — could be even more powerful.
The cartels are creating fentanyl knock-offs in labs at an astonishing rate, Mr. Cherundolo told lawmakers. In 2018, the DEA identified 3,591 new compounds of fentanyl, a 27 percent increase from 2017.
Making the measure permanent seemed to gain bipartisan support among the senators. Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, called fentanyl “a drug of mass destruction,” saying Congress needs to act and “send the right signal.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat, agreed Congress needs to make the ban permanent.
Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat, railed against the Department of Health and Human Services for not participating in the hearing.
“There is a witness missing here. There is a chair that ought to be filled with somebody for Health and Human Services,” he said. “They are not here and they should be here because we are talking about decisions when it comes to research and medical safety, which involves their agency. They ought to be at this hearing so we can ask them some basic questions.”
Mr. Graham said the committee had invited “a particular person” from HHS, but the department didn’t make that person available.
“I share your concern,” Mr. Graham said.
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