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Guest column/Let’s ban fentanyl analogues

In 2017, almost 50,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses. To put that number into perspective, the number of American lives lost due to opioid overdoses is nearly three times the population of the city of Martinsburg. It is apparent that West Virginia has been particularly hard hit by opioids. In fact, West Virginia has the most opioid overdose fatalities per capita in the country. Many of these overdose deaths are due to illicitly-produced fentanyl and its analogues. One such death was at the center of a trial that just finished in Clarksburg Federal Court. The jury found the defendant guilty of providing the deadly fentanyl to the young West Virginia woman, age 20. Her body was found dismembered in a Georgia landfill, once again demonstrating the depths of depravity those who deal these poisons will go to.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid available lawfully only by a prescription. It has legitimate medical uses — primarily to manage severe pain and in palliative care — and is classified as a Schedule II drug by the Controlled Substances Act. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, abuse and/or recreational use of pharmaceutically-prescribed fentanyl occurs on a small scale. It is illicit fentanyl and its analogues that are responsible for most overdose deaths.

Illicit fentanyl is manufactured in labs in China and Mexico and smuggled into the United States. It is 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine. So powerful, in fact, that only a couple milligrams — the size of a few grains of salt — can kill the average person.

Because fentanyl is made in labs using chemicals, its structure is easily manipulated. Drug cartels that manufacture and traffic this poison understand American laws and know how to exploit them. They know that by changing a single molecule in the chemical structure of fentanyl, they have essentially created a new drug. One that, unlike fentanyl, is not permanently illegal in the United States.

These drugs, known as “fentanyl analogues,” do as fentanyl does: Creating more addicts and killing more Americans. These analogues can be up to 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Fentanyl and its analogues are increasingly being pressed into pill form, causing extreme danger to users who might not know the true nature of the substance.

In West Virginia, fentanyl and its analogues were involved in 531 resident overdose deaths in 2018 — accounting for 41 percent of all fatal overdoses. Two of the hardest hit counties — Berkeley and Monongalia — are in the Northern District of West Virginia.

To address the crisis of opioid overdose deaths, law enforcement must have all the necessary tools at their disposal. One such tool is the DEA’s 2018 order, which classifies all illicit fentanyl-related drugs as Schedule I drugs. Unfortunately, that order was temporary and will expire in less than two weeks.

On Jan. 17, the Senate passed the Temporary Reauthorization and Study of the Emergency Scheduling of Fentanyl Analogues Act. This bipartisan legislation, with the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, approved a 15-month extension of DEA’s temporary scheduling order. This is certainly a step in the right direction, and the House should follow suit and pass the Senate’s bill.

However, a longer-term legislative solution is needed. A permanent ban on all fentanyl analogues would send a strong message to the cartels and sophisticated drug operations that peddle illicit fentanyl that the United States is serious about addressing this crisis. It also would protect the public by permanently placing these drugs where they rightly belong — in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which is reserved for the most dangerous of drugs. There should be nothing partisan about making these deadly drugs permanently illegal. The issue of life and death transcends party lines.

On Thursday, the DEA’s temporary order expires. If Congress fails to pass legislation it will have a dramatic impact, not just on the prosecutors and law enforcement officers who spend their lives investigating and prosecuting drug dealers, but also on communities already hard hit by the opioid epidemic, many communities which are right here in the Northern District of West Virginia.

There is little doubt that drug traffickers are eagerly awaiting the temporary order’s expiration to start flooding our communities with these dangerous drugs. The passage of this legislation is quite literally a matter of life and death.

Despite recent reductions in opioid-related overdose deaths in West Virginia, prosecuting drug dealers — particularly those who peddle heroin and fentanyl and profit from the misery of addiction and death — remains a top priority for my office. But our federal resources are not infinite; we need all the help we can get. Passing this legislation would provide invaluable support to the entire law enforcement community as we continue to combat the opioid crisis.

(Powell is the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia.)

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