The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Thursday announced that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) plans to classify illicit fentanyl analogues on an emergency basis to subject anyone who possess, distributes, or manufactures illicit forms of fentanyl to criminal charges.
The move is the latest effort by DOJ to stem the opioid misuse epidemic, according to a DOJ release. A DEA official said the agency "is seeing new fentanyl-related substances crop up at alarming rates" and the latest move "gets [DEA] ahead of the chemists, ahead of the dealers, who would engage in this mad chemistry to avoid controlled substances."
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said DEA's plan to include all fentanyl-related substances on the agency's "drug schedules" will allow DOJ prosecutors to charge individuals without facing "cumbersome evidentiary hurdles to secure convictions … under the Analogue Act."
Sessions said, "By scheduling all fentanyls, we empower our law enforcement officers and prosecutors to take swift and necessary action against those spreading these deadly poisons."
DOJ said the classification will be completed on an emergency basis for two years, with the possibility of an extension of one year.
According to DOJ, the classification targets illicit fentanyl-related products imported into the United States and developed by overseas chemical manufacturers who alter the structural variants of fentanyl-related products to bypass regulatory controls on such products under the Controlled Substance Act.
In the past, DOJ has had to handle cases involving illicit forms of fentanyl individually, with each case consisting of disputes among scientific expert witnesses concerning the chemical makeup of such products. A DOJ official Thursday said that approach resulted in a "game of whack-a-mole" as manufacturers repeatedly concocted new fentanyl-related products to avoid oversight.
The classification will take effect no earlier than 30 days after DEA publishes its notice of intent in the Federal Register.
Sessions said the move "empower[s] … law enforcement officers and prosecutors to take swift and necessary action against those spreading these deadly poisons." Session said he "urge[s] the many members of Congress who clearly share our concern and alarm over fentanyl's role in our opioid overdose epidemic to do their part by permanently scheduling these lethal substances."
DEA Acting Administrator Robert Patterson said, "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" (Lynch, Reuters, 11/9; Roubein, The Hill, 11/9; Horwitz, Washington Post, 11/9; Green, CNN, 11/9; DOJ release, 11/9).
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