WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top U.S. Senator signaled some support on Tuesday for legislation permanently placing illicit chemical knock-offs of the extremely potent opioid fentanyl into the same legal class as heroin to boost prosecutions of traffickers and makers of the drugs, a proposal championed by top federal officials.
The new classification being proposed by the Justice Department and the Office of National Drug Control Policy is meant to help fight a proliferation of chemically tweaked versions of fentanyl, known as analogues, that are fueling the U.S. opioid drug epidemic.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham said on Tuesday he is “very sympathetic” to the idea of new legislation, and declared that fentanyl is a “drug of mass destruction.”
“We need to make sure that next year Congress acts, and we keep sending the right signal,” he said.
Tuesday’s hearing comes more than a year after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a temporary emergency ban, due to expire in February 2020, which helped the DEA expedite investigations of new analogues without first having to chemically analyze and classify each one.
Fentanyl analogues resemble fentanyl and have similar physical effects. Chemists have been slightly altering molecular structures to evade the DEA scheduling regime.
DEA Chief Operations Officer Greg Cherundolo urged lawmakers to act quickly to make the measure permanent so that cases against various analogues will not be undercut when the temporary ban lapses. Since the temporary order took effect, there has been a 40% reduction in instances of new drugs coming into the country, he said.
“This (expiration) date is rapidly approaching,” he told lawmakers. “We must make the order permanent and we must act soon.”
In 2017, more than two-thirds of about 70,200 drug overdose deaths in America involved an opioid, such as fentanyl, government data shows.
Some of those deaths involved fentanyl prescribed by a doctor. But many involved illicit versions of the highly addictive synthetic painkiller, most of which comes into the country from China.
Fentanyl is about 100 times more potent than morphine.
As prescribed by physicians, fentanyl is classified as a Schedule II drug, meaning it is highly addictive but has a medicinal purpose. Placing illicit fentanyl analogues in Schedule 1, along with heroin, would mean that they are addictive, have no medicinal purpose and are effectively banned.
The February 2018 emergency order classified all fentanyl analogues as Schedule 1 drugs. In 2018, the DEA identified 3,591 new compounds of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids - a 27% increase from 2017.
Republican Senator Ron Johnson has offered a draft bill to make the temporary scheduling of illicit fentanyl analogues permanent.
However, several key Democrats urged caution on Tuesday, saying a permanent ban could prevent critical medical research from being conducted. They said experts from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) need to weigh in first.
Senator Dick Durbin also criticized the DEA for historically granting big pharmaceutical companies’ requests to produce large quantities of opioids.
“It is time to say no - just say no to pharma when it comes to production,” he said. “Let’s be careful. HHS needs to be in this conversation.”
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Bill Berkrot