Congress Weighs Options to Control Opioid Copycats

January 31, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
September 12, 2019, New York, USA: Members of P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) and Truth Pharm staged a protest on Sept. 12, 2019 outside Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, over their recent controversial opioid settlement. Participants dropped hundreds prescription bottles of OxyContin while holding tombstones with the names of opioids casualties and banners reading "Shame on Sackler" and "200 Dead Each Day." (Erik McGregor/Zuma Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Drug control experts urged Congress Tuesday to take quick action to prevent drugs created by clandestine chemists that mimic the effects of opioids from entering legal and illegal marketplaces.

They suggested that Congress turn a temporary order on the chemicals into a permanent prohibition by classifying them as Class 1 – or highly illegal — drugs, similar to heroin or cocaine.

“Congressional action would resolve this issue and permanently address the United States’ response to these deadly fentanyl-related substances,” said Amanda Liskamm, a Justice Department opioid enforcement attorney. 

She spoke during a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, which is considering legislation to prevent the spread of opioid synthetics.

The copycat drugs are commonly called fentanyl analogues, named for the powerful opioid painkiller Fentanyl. It is 100 times more potent than morphine as a painkiller but also more likely to lead to drug addiction and death from overdose.

The federal government’s year-old classification of fentanyl analogues as Class 1 drugs is set to expire Feb. 6.

So far, Congress has reacted with only temporary legislation to avoid interfering with research into antidotes for drug overdoses. It also was looking for a better definition of the broad class of fentanyl analogues.

Liskamm said the proliferation of fentanyl analogues creates significant risk for the public if there is no legislation that clamps down on the drug but still allows research to continue.

“Unfortunately, clandestine chemists have with relative ease created new synthetic variations of fentanyl by introducing minor structural modifications, resulting in new, non-controlled fentanyl-related substances,” Liskamm said in her testimony Tuesday. “These substances are specifically engineered to skirt U.S. law.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported fentanyl and chemical copycats caused 41 percent of the 70,200 U.S. drug overdoses in 2017.

The Trump administration turned over its proposal for new legislation to Congress Tuesday. It was discussed during the House hearing.

The proposal would give the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) discretion to decide which fentanyl analogues should be permanently classified as Class 1 drugs. The measure is supposed to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to prosecute anyone who tries to sell opioid’s chemical substitutes.

The proposal also would ease some rules on fentanyl analogue research.

The proposal was developed by the Justice Department and U.S. Health and Human Services Department, both of which sent witnesses to the congressional hearing.

Other parts of the Trump administration proposal would allow the Department of Health and Human Services to remove analogues from Schedule 1 classification if they have medical merit but a low potential for abuse. Some registration requirements for researchers would be streamlined.

The Trump administration proposal is essentially the same as a Republican bill pending in Congress. A vote in the House is expected as soon as this week.

The Senate passed legislation on fentanyl analogues this month but it only extends the temporary classification as a Class1 drug.

Some Democrats expressed concern during the House hearing that the bill could lead to widespread prosecutions of low-level drug offenders who are selling only weak versions of the fentanyl analogues.

One of them was U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat who chairs the subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security.

“Rather than relying solely on incarceration, we need to also focus significantly on treatment,” Bass said. “Under current federal sentencing guidelines, many defendants who are not high level traffickers may be unnecessarily subjected to mandatory minimums that in fact become life sentences. I want to make sure that we don’t repeat what we’ve done in past epidemics, which is the over-criminalization of an addiction.”

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