Commentary: Congress, don't allow the ban on fentanyl-like drugs to expire
AP

Commentary: Congress, don't allow the ban on fentanyl-like drugs to expire

A syringe with Fentanyl, the Narcotic Painkiller. (Dreamstime/TNS)

In 2018 alone, nearly 32,000 American men, women and children fatally overdosed on a synthetic opioid. One of the deadliest synthetic opioids is fentanyl, which is helping to drive our nation's opioid crisis.

Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. There are also countless types of fentanyl analogues, which are similar in chemical structure to fentanyl, but can be even more potent. Carfentanil, the most powerful fentanyl analogue detected in the United States, is estimated to be 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Although commonly used as a tranquilizer for elephants and other large mammals, drug traffickers mix carfentanil or other fentanyl-related substances with heroin or other illicit drugs to make the drugs stronger.

Now, a critical tool that, for two years, has allowed law enforcement to combat trafficking of the fentanyl-related substances is set to expire unless Congress passes permanent legislation within the next few weeks.

Fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances have had a particularly destructive impact in Chicago and surrounding suburbs. Ground zero for illegal sales is the West Side of the city, where gang members sell fentanyl and fentanyl-like substances, among other opioids such as heroin, to buyers from all over the area. Much of the heroin sold in Chicago is laced with fentanyl or a fentanyl-related substance - a trend we are also seeing with other drugs, including cocaine.

Those who travel to the West Side to buy these drugs often do so via the Eisenhower Expressway, notoriously dubbed the "Heroin Highway." It was recently reported that there were 789 fentanyl-related overdose deaths in Cook County in 2019 - significantly more than the number of homicides during the same period. During the first nine months of last year, first responders in Chicago administered more than 6,400 doses of naloxone, an emergency substance used to reverse an opioid overdose.

To make matters worse, the illegal trafficking of opioids and other drugs continues to fuel Chicago's stubborn violent crime problem. Murders, shootings, robberies and other violent crimes, such as the illegal use, possession and transfer of firearms, are often a byproduct of the illicit drug market. It is not a coincidence that Chicago's highest volume of fentanyl-related seizures and naloxone administrations are concentrated in West Side neighborhoods with some of the highest homicide rates.

To fight this violence-ridden drug trade and stem the tide of opioid overdoses, law enforcement needs access to every available tool. A crisis of this magnitude demands nothing less. Unfortunately, we are in danger of losing a critically important legal tool unless Congress acts quickly to keep potent fentanyl analogues illegal under federal law.

Prior to 2018, drug traffickers created new fentanyl-like drugs, often by altering a single molecule in their formulas, in an attempt to skirt U.S. law, which had outlawed only a few fentanyl analogues. These new substances fell outside of U.S. control, requiring the Drug Enforcement Administration to restart the tedious process of identifying and controlling them on a substance-by-substance basis. Law enforcement and prosecutors were given the difficult task of keeping up with ruthless and well-financed drug traffickers and their unscrupulous chemists.

In response, the DEA instituted - on an emergency basis - a temporary, two-year control of all "fentanyl-related substances." As a result, anyone who manufactures, imports, distributes or possesses a fentanyl-related substance is currently subject to federal criminal prosecution. This emergency order has been a tremendous help as we work to combat the epidemic and prosecute and deter distributors responsible for peddling deadly fentanyl analogues.

However, the DEA's temporary scheduling of fentanyl analogues on a class-wide basis is set to expire Feb. 6. This means that, unless Congress acts within a few weeks, drug traffickers will be incentivized to create and distribute modified versions of fentanyl. That's exactly what happened prior to the DEA's emergency scheduling of fentanyl-related substances in 2018. We can't let that happen again.

Congress needs to pass legislation ensuring that permanent, class-wide scheduling of fentanyl analogues continues. This can be done without impeding responsible medical research or interfering with medically necessary prescriptions.

Following the U.S.'s lead, China - one of two principal sources of fentanyl-related substances to our country - imposed a similar class-wide control on all fentanyl-related substances last year. That action marked a significant development in the worldwide fight against opioid trafficking.

It is now up to Congress to take the next step in this fight. It needs to act soon. Lives are at stake.

___

ABOUT THE WRITER

John R. Lausch Jr. is the United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Related to this story

Most Popular

LOS ANGELES - I circle around UCLA's Moore Hall for the third time. Security officers block each entrance. Police in riot gear patrol the streets. Metal fences wall off the building from protesters, and barricades separate protesters on the left from those on the right. Everyone prepares for Donald Trump Jr.'s arrival to promote his new book, "Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants ...

President Donald Trump has come up with a new solution for the Middle East, a region that has embroiled the United States for decades in conflict and war. "I think that NATO should be expanded, and we should include the Middle East," he told reporters last week. "And we can come home, or largely come home and use NATO." He even had a name for it. "You call it NATOME" - NATO plus the Middle ...

When Elizabeth Warren aimed her character assassination at Bernie Sanders in the seventh Democratic presidential debate, she may have thought she'd won a round. And maybe she did. But the real winner was that old red baiter, the late Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. Everything that man said and did was a lie (to borrow a description from another McCarthy - Mary, the writer). His dishonesty was so ...

What's revealing about so many self-described nationalists is their contempt for the nation they claim to love. When President Trump talks about America, he talks about how people who don't love it should leave it - and then he talks about how awful it is and how much he doesn't love it. Here is America's president commenting on America's most populous city and fourth most populous state: "So ...

The message from Buckingham Palace to Queen Elizabeth's grandson, Prince Harry, and his wife, Meghan Markle, was clear: You're in or you're out. There is no part-time work for royals. Harry and Meghan chose out. That's kind of sad. And surprising. What - they couldn't all work this out? I get it that, barely two years into a marriage that was supposed to signal a breathtaking infusion of ...

We the people of the United States of America are deeply invested in the impeachment trial now underway in the U.S. Senate, prompted by two articles of impeachment brought by the House of Representatives. But the House, we should remember, omitted several other potential grounds for impeachment, including racism, sexism and what the Dalai Lama aptly called the president's "lack of moral ...

Most black men rarely get to experience, even vicariously, what it's like to be a white man in this country. I've been alive awhile now, but only truly understood the white male mindset once. It was 2006; Matt Lauer, the former NBC Today show host, was prepping for a television interview. He was bent over a coffee table, deep in concentration, reading a stack of papers as people around him set ...

"It's going to be like breaking up with everyone you know." That's what a colleague predicted three years ago when I took a new job in Chicago and would leave hundreds of my primary care patients in Boston. She was right. Six months of serial breakups. I had spent a good part of the prior 15 years developing deep relationships with my patients, learning about their medical problems and, more ...

On Jan. 17, Michelle Obama's birthday, the Trump administration proposed rollbacks in nutrition standards in the school meal program. Under the proposal, legumes and potatoes will count as vegetables, fewer fruits will be served at breakfast and a la carte meals will allow students to select items high in fat. The result will be increased access to foods like french fries, hamburgers and other ...

  • Updated

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday can reliably be counted on for two phenomena: an outpouring of commitment to the ideal of nonviolent social change and a "revelation" that Dr. King was a Republican. That last point also reliably draws groans and exaggerated eye-rolling from those of us who say, "And your point is ...?" King himself was publicly nonpartisan but very laudatory of the ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News