The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has announced new emergency measures designed to stem the flow of fentanyl analog drugs that have fueled the epidemic of opiate addiction. Keeping up with the rapid development of new drugs created by labs who alter fentanyl’s molecular structures has been a major challenge for law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
The DEA has been using 31-year old law called the Federal Analogue Act, which allows the government to temporary classify as illegal new drugs created by labs who alter drugs’ molecular structures to evade the Controlled Substances Act and other regulations.
Since 2015, the Justice Department has used the law six times to quickly ban new variants of fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid that is 50 times more powerful than heroin. But that system has been time-consuming and unwieldy due to certain evidentiary requirements that make it more difficult to prosecute traffickers, officials say.
When the new order takes effect in December, prosecutors will be able to act more quickly than than they could under the Analogue Act, with the ability to immediately make those determinations on new analogue drugs. The temporary scheduling will go into effect no earlier than 30 days after the DEA publishes its notice of intent and will last up to two years, with a possibility of a one-year extension if certain conditions are met, officials said.
That allows prosecutors to charge anyone caught making, importing, distributing or possessing the new substances to be charged as if they were fentanyl. The DEA’s order makes anyone who possesses, imports, distributes, or manufactures any illicit fentanyl analogue subject to criminal prosecution in the same manner as for fentanyl and other controlled substances. The action will make it easier for federal prosecutors and agents to prosecute traffickers of all forms of fentanyl-related substances with no medical or industrial use, the agency says.
Some of the new fentanyl analogues being created in illicit labs are stronger than fentanyl itself, officials say. The DEA classified fentanyl as a schedule II opiate decades ago, which making it a felony to sell or use without a prescription. But in China, until recently, fentanyl was largely unregulated.
In late 2015, the drug agency persuaded Chinese officials to add 116 synthetic drugs to their list of controlled substances, including fentanyl and several analogues. In response, underground Chinese labs began devising alterations to the fentanyl molecule.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the DEA measure is a stopgap action, intended to last only two to three years. “I also urge 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,” he said in a statement.
Officials say most illicit fentanyl type-drugs reach U.S. users through the mail or express shipping systems, or are imported across the southwest border.
Most of the world’s fentanyl is produced in China. The DEA action was announced the same day that President Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, where they discussed a number of matters including drug trafficking.