House passes bill to make fentanyl drug penalties permanent

The House of Representatives on Thursday passed legislation that would impose tough permanent criminal penalties and strict controls on fentanyl-related drugs, with dozens of Democrats joining almost all Republicans in a vote that reflected the political challenges of s’ tackle what both sides see as America’s most urgent drug. crisis.

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

The bipartisan vote reflected agreement between Republicans and a strong bloc of Democrats that tougher penalties for fentanyl-related drugs are 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 the main culprit.

“We should vote to move forward with this bill that we agree on that helps stop the bad guys,” Representative Morgan Griffith, a Republican of Virginia and author of the bill, told the House. “Once fentanyl analogues are permanently listed on Schedule I, Congress can build on that and address the illicit crisis.”

But there are deep divisions over the ramifications of that decision, making the fate of the legislation unclear in the Democratic-led Senate.

Many Democrats, as well as public health and civil rights groups, note that harsh sentences for fentanyl-related drugs have spiked incarceration rates and disproportionately affected people of color. They argue that criminalizing them further will only worsen the crisis and have called for a public health response that includes better public education, more drug treatment and recovery services, and overdose prevention.

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

But on Thursday in the House, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, broadly denounced the GOP bill, calling it “one-sided” and futile. attempt “to incarcerate our way out of a public health crisis.

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

Still, a large group of Democrats, some of them from competitive districts, lined up in favor of the measure, eager to show they were working to tackle the synthetic opioid crisis at a time when Republicans tried to portray their party as weak on the issue.

Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota, one of 74 Democrats to cross party lines and support the bill, said she’s “not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good here.”

“We have an American crisis here at hand, 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 “is what can pass the House, and we’ll see what happens in the Senate.

The debate was just the latest and most focused fight to unfold over fentanyl in Congress, where the synthetic opioid crisis has featured prominently in other politically charged political battles, such as how to in the face of growing threats from China and a bitter stalemate over border security. and immigration. Republicans in particular have frequently cited the spike in fentanyl-related deaths across the country as a reason to crack down on immigration and remove Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas, even though the bulk of these drugs are imported by entry points. by US citizens.

Currently, under Schedule I, someone caught trafficking 10 grams of a fentanyl analogue would receive a minimum prison sentence of five years, while someone carrying 100 grams would receive a minimum sentence of 10 years. But the legislation would end up lowering those thresholds further, experts say, because of how it defines a “fentanyl-related substance” so that even if a trace of a fentanyl analogue appeared in a 10-gram sample, that would trigger the mandatory minimum sentence of five years.

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

The legislation provides exceptions for drugs already listed elsewhere — such as fentanyl itself, which, as an ingredient of various federally approved drugs, is listed in Schedule II — and for institutions seeking analogues of the fentanyl for potential beneficial use.

But Democrats have expressed concern that the bill contains no instructions to delist fentanyl-related drugs later found to be beneficial, or to reduce or waive the sentences of those convicted of related offences.

A companion bill in the Senate has so far only received support from Republicans, and Democratic leaders were unsure how many of their members might back the effort — especially after the White House declared backing it.

The administration has proposed coupling the permanent Schedule I designation of fentanyl-related drugs with the tighter enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences, as well as a mechanism to delist fentanyl-related drugs found to be had medicinal properties and reduction or cancellation of any related criminal penalty. . He also called for a study of how the permanent programming would affect research, civil rights, and the illicit production and trafficking of fentanyl analogues.

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


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