House Passes Bill to Make Penalties Permanent for Fentanyl-Related Drugs

House Passes Bill to Make Penalties Permanent for Fentanyl-Related Drugs

The House of Representatives passed legislation on Thursday that would provide permanent harsh penalties and strict controls for fentanyl-related drugs. Scores of Democrats joined nearly all Republicans in a vote that reflected the political challenges of dealing with what both parties believe is America’s most pressing drug crisis.

The bill, passed by a vote of 289 to 133, would permanently list fentanyl-related drugs as Schedule I controlled substances, a designation that carries severe prison sentences for highly addictive, non-medicinal chemicals and is now scheduled to expire at the end of 2024.

The bipartisan vote reflected consensus between Republicans and a solid bloc of Democrats that tightening penalties for fentanyl-related drugs is a necessary part of the federal response to the crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were approximately 75,000 synthetic opioid overdose deaths in 2022, with fentanyl being a leading cause.

“We should vote to move forward with this bill that we agree on that will help stop the bad guys,” Rep. Morgan Griffith, a Virginia Republican and one of the drafters of the bill, said in the House of Representatives. “Once fentanyl analogs are permanently added to Schedule I, Congress can build on that and deal with the illicit crisis.”

However, there are deep divisions over the consequences the law will have, making the law’s fate in the Democratic-run Senate unclear.

Many Democrats and health and civil rights groups are finding that harsh penalties for fentanyl-related drugs have skyrocketed incarceration rates and disproportionately affected people of color. They argue that further criminalization would only worsen the crisis and are calling for a public health response, including better public education, more addiction treatment and recovery services, and overdose prevention.

The White House last week backed the House bill while urging Congress to consider its other recommendations, including stricter mandatory minimum sentences that would apply only to cases in which the substance is linked to death or serious bodily harm could.

But Thursday in the House of Representatives, New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, strongly condemned the GOP bill, calling it “unilateral” and a futile attempt to “lock us in a way out.” a public health crisis.”

“This war on drugs – mandatory sentencing, jailing everyone – hasn’t worked,” Mr Pallone said. “It didn’t work with other drugs.”

Still, a large group of Democrats, some drawn from competing districts, rallied in support of the measure, wanting to show they are working to tackle the synthetic opioid crisis at a time when Republicans have been trying to sidestep their party output to be presented as weak.

Minnesota Rep. Angie Craig, one of the 74 Democrats who crossed party lines and supported the bill, said she “won’t let perfect be the enemy of good here.”

“We’ve got an American crisis here, and I think what you’ve seen from the White House is that they recognize that this is a crisis,” Ms Craig said, noting that Thursday’s bill “That’s what the House of Representatives and we can do. I’ll see what happens in the Senate.”

The debate was only the latest and most concentrated fentanyl dispute in Congress, where the synthetic opioid crisis has played a major role in other politically charged political battles, such as how to deal with the rising threats from China and a bitter dispute over border security and immigration. Republicans in particular have frequently cited the rise in fentanyl-related deaths across the country as a reason to curb immigration and impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas, even though the bulk of these drugs are brought in through ports of entry by US citizens.

Currently, under Schedule I, a person caught trafficking 10 grams of a fentanyl analogue would be sentenced to a minimum of five years, while a person carrying 100 grams would be sentenced to a minimum of 10 years. However, experts say the legislation would eventually lower these thresholds even further because of the way it defines a “fentanyl-related substance”, so that a trigger would be triggered even if a 10-gram sample contained a trace amount of a Fentanyl analogues would carry the mandatory minimum sentence of five years.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, for some fentanyl analogs, even a few milligrams can be a lethal dose.

The legislation provides exceptions for drugs already listed elsewhere – such as fentanyl itself, which is listed on Schedule II as a component of various government-approved drugs – and for entities researching fentanyl analogues for potential beneficial use .

But Democrats raised concerns that the bill does not include instructions to eliminate fentanyl-related drugs that have later been found useful, or to reduce or vacate the sentences of people convicted of similar offenses.

An accompanying bill in the Senate has so far garnered only Republican support, and Democratic leaders were unsure how many of their members would support the effort — especially after the White House issued a statement backing it.

The government has proposed to couple the permanent listing of fentanyl-related drugs in Schedule I with the narrower application of mandatory minimum penalties, as well as a mechanism to remove fentanyl-related drugs found to have medicinal properties and to Reduction or elimination of all related penalties. She also called for a study into how the permanent classification would affect research, civil rights, and the illicit production and trafficking of fentanyl analogues.

Many of these proposals have been included in bipartisan bills pending in Congress.

Karoun Demirjian