On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed legislation permanently relegating fentanyl-like substances to a category reserved for the most dangerous drugs.
The GOP-sponsored HALT fentanyl bill passed by a vote of 289 to 133 and was backed by 74 Democrats who wanted to be on record as supporters of legislation to address the synthetic opioid crisis.
But the majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives rejected the measure, thereby exposing internal party lines.
Republicans say fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances (FRS) are pouring across the border. The bill, introduced by Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), aims to curb overdose deaths and protect Americans by giving law enforcement the tools they need to fight these drugs.
Republicans have also criticized the White House for its inadequate efforts to stem the flow of fentanyl from the southern border into the US.
The Biden administration has backed the HALT fentanyl bill.
In a government policy statement earlier this week, the White House said it had “long-standing support” for two key provisions of the bill: permanently designating all fentanyl analogs as Schedule I drugs and accelerating research into such substances.
“These two provisions are critical components of the Biden-Harris administration’s 2021 recommendations to Congress to address the supply of illicit FRS and save lives,” the administration said.
Democrats and health experts have expressed concern that the bill repeats flaws from the infamous war on drugs by promoting mass incarceration over prevention, treatment and recovery programs. It would establish a mandatory minimum penalty for spreading FRS under the Controlled Substances Act.
In laying out their opposition to the bill, Democrats agreed that Congress must tackle the country’s opioid epidemic, but jailing more people is not the solution. They said the bill will make no difference in reducing fentanyl overdoses.
In 2022, more than 109,000 people died from drug overdoses; about 75,000 of them died from synthetic opioids – largely illegal fentanyl or fentanyl-related substances.
“We just can’t pull ourselves out of a public health crisis,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (DN.J.), the senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, during the plenary debate.
“The American people deserve bipartisan solutions that consider both public safety and public health. This bill fails on both fronts and simply perpetuates the status quo as the opioid use disorder and overdose crisis continues to devastate American families across the country,” Pallone said.
The Trump administration temporarily reclassified fentanyl-related substances as Schedule 1 drugs, a category reserved for drugs with high potential for abuse and no recognized medical use.
Congress renewed this classification in 2020 and again last year, and it is scheduled to expire at the end of 2024. The legislation would make the temporary planning order permanent.
Fentanyl itself is approved for medical use by the Food and Drug Administration and is therefore in Category 2. The bill would target illegal fentanyl copycats.
It would also create a special registration process for researchers to conduct studies on analogues for potential medical use.
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