WASHINGTON — Lawmakers in the U.S. House passed bipartisan legislation this week in an effort to curb staggering overdose deaths from illegal fentanyl substances that are illicitly produced and up to 50 times stronger than heroin.
The HALT Fentanyl Act, passed on a 289-133 vote Thursday with 74 Democratic votes and support from the Biden administration, would permanently categorize lab-made substances with similar chemical structures to fentanyl among the most strictly regulated drugs under U.S. law.
The Drug Enforcement Administration in 2015 temporarily defined 17 fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I — the category carrying the most severe criminal penalties. Congress has since extended the temporary scheduling multiple times.
While proponents who point to record-breaking overdose deaths say the legislation would hold traffickers accountable, numerous advocacy groups argue the bill is under researched and risks criminal charges for those in possession of small amounts of “harmless and inert substances,” according to a letter signed by 150 organizations.
Drug overdose rates in the U.S. have risen fivefold in the past two decades, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published in December.
The study shows that deaths attributed to synthetic opioids, including fentanyl and its many analogues, have been steadily on the rise, with a staggering jump in recent years.
The CDC tracked a record 107,622 overdose deaths in 2021 — 71,238 of them due to manmade, illegal fentanyl substances.
The DEA attributes more deaths to illegal fentanyl among Americans under 50 than any cause of death, including heart disease, cancer, homicide, suicide and other accidents.
Of particular concern is that illicit fentanyl substances are often cut into other recreational drugs, including cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin, with users unaware of its presence.
“The HALT Fentanyl Act would ban fentanyl analogues and strip the drug cartels and other criminals of the incentive to create new versions of fentanyl to skirt around the law,” GOP Rep. Brett Guthrie of Kentucky said on the House floor late Wednesday. “This bill is a key step to help get these poisons off our streets and give law enforcement the tools they need to crack down on illicit fentanyl traffic trafficking.”
Effect on loved ones
Sunday will mark nine months since Deb and Ray Cullen, of Shippingport, Pennsylvania, lost their 23-year-old son Zachary to fentanyl poisoning.
The Shippensburg University student had traveled with two friends to Harrisburg for a birthday weekend trip.
“They were having dinner, having drinks, enjoying themselves. And then at some point, the detective told us that he thinks that they were targeted by a dealer. He doesn’t think they were looking for anything but thinks somebody came up to them and offered, and they made the choice to purchase some cocaine. And the cocaine was laced with fentanyl,” Deb said.
The morning they received the news, Ray and Deb say, they turned on Zachary’s laptop to find that he had left open study materials for his university course in managerial economics.
“He passed away. His friend survived, but with some physical issues. So we’re here trying to just make a difference so that other families don’t have to go through this,” she said Thursday shortly after the vote while sitting in the office of GOP Rep. John Joyce, her representative and a co-sponsor of the bill.
The parents said they hope to see more awareness and an end to the stigma around those with substance use disorder and those who experiment with drugs that they are unaware are laced with illicit fentanyl.
“There’s a lot of recreational cocaine and drug use. There was (someone yesterday) who said that had (the users) not done something illegal, that they would still be here,” Ray said. “I’m like, ‘Well, there’s a lot of things that get done illegally that you don’t die from.’”
“I think people that are dealing this drug, they need to be held accountable,” Deb added.
Joyce said he has been following up with the family since they emailed his office shortly after their son’s death.
“I went over to Speaker McCarthy (today) and said ‘Up there in the gallery, there are parents who have lost their son, and they’re courageous and they continue to work to spread this message and have taken time out of their busy lives to come to Washington and drive down here for this vote,’” Joyce said.
“This is an initial step. We need to take additional steps to (go after) the active ingredients which are shipped from China, to Mexico to the cartels, formulated and brought through our borders to kill our family or neighbors or friends,” Joyce continued.
Unlike legal fentanyl that doctors prescribe after surgery or for advanced stage cancer patients, illicit fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances are produced in underground labs by transnational criminal organizations.
Concerns over mandatory minimums
More than 150 harm reduction, criminal justice and civil liberties organizations have come out against the bill, which was introduced this Congress by GOP Reps. Morgan Griffith of Virginia and Robert Latta of Ohio.
In a letter Wednesday to House leadership, groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch urged lawmakers to vote against the legislation.
“The classwide scheduling policy expands the application of existing severe mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted by Congress in the 1980s to a newly scheduled class of fentanyl-related compounds,” the letter said. “For example, just a trace amount of a fentanyl analogue in a mixture with a combined weight of 10 grams — 10 paper clips — can translate into a five-year mandatory minimum with no evidence needed that the seller even knew it contained fentanyl.”
Other advocacy groups who co-signed the letter included the Association of Black Social Workers in Virginia, the Florida Harm Reduction Collective, Progressive Maryland and HEAL Ohio.
Though the bill outlines registration processes for researchers to continue to test the fentanyl-related substances, the advocacy groups say that lawmakers are classifying chemical compounds before their effects are known.
“… the HALT Fentanyl Act does not include an offramp to reschedule or remove (fentanyl related substances) that research has proven to be pharmacologically inactive or do not meet schedule I criteria,” the letter continues.
Criteria used by the Department of Justice to classify Schedule I drugs include high abuse potential and “no currently accepted medical use in the United States.”
Marijuana, LSD, ecstasy and peyote are listed as Schedule I.
“In committee, Democrats offered amendments to improve the (bill),” Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey said on the House floor Wednesday. “We asked that Republicans consider additions to the bill that reflect the Biden administration’s commonsense interagency proposal.”
Pallone, ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Committee, which marked up the bill, said the amendments rejected by GOP leadership would have promised “a scientific and equitable approach.”
Support from across the aisle
Despite the opposition from many Democrats, 74 of the party members voted in favor of the HALT Fentanyl Act.
“To stop this effort now is just not right. Fentanyl related substances are highly toxic and we should treat them as such with blanket permanent scheduling,” said Rep. Chris Pappas of New Hampshire.
Pappas is the sponsor of a bill that permanently schedules fentanyl related substances but also adjusts criminal penalties and establishes a process to declassify compounds found to be safe.
“This is the beginning of the legislative process. This bill … would likely come back to the House after the Senate puts its mark on it. So we’re gonna continue to advocate for those commonsense provisions,” Pappas said.
The Biden administration issued a statement earlier this week supporting the HALT Fentanyl Act but said that its other recommendations to lawmakers included compelling agencies to root out which substances do not pose high potential for abuse and to study the effects of the blanket scheduling.
“The Administration calls on Congress to pass all of these critical measures to improve public safety and save lives,” the statement said.