House Passes Bill to Make Penalties Permanent for Fentanyl-Related Drugs
The House of Representatives approved legislation Thursday that would make permanent tougher criminal penalties and tighter controls on fentanyl-related drugs, with a large number of Democrats joining nearly all Republicans in a vote that reflected the treatment’s political challenges. of what both parties consider America’s most urgent drug. the crisis.
The bill, passed by a vote of 289 to 133, would have permanently listed fentanyl-related drugs as Schedule I controlled substances, a designation that mandates heavy prison sentences for the highly addictive, non-medical chemical and is now set to expire at the end of 2024.
The bipartisan vote reflected agreement between Republicans and a strong bloc of Democrats that toughening penalties for fentanyl-related drugs is a necessary component of the federal response to the crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were approximately 75,000 synthetic opioid overdose deaths in 2022, with fentanyl being the main culprit.
“We need to vote to advance this bill that we agree on and that helps stop bad people,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith, Republican of Virginia and an author of the bill, on the House floor. “Once fentanyl analogs are permanently on Schedule I, Congress can build on this and deal with the illicit crisis.”
But there are deep divisions over the consequences of doing so, making the fate of the legislation in the Democratic-led Senate unclear.
Many Democrats, along with public health and civil rights groups, note that tougher sentences for fentanyl-related drugs have increased incarceration rates and disproportionately affected people of color. They argue that further criminalizing them will only worsen the crisis and have called for a public health response, including better public education, more addiction treatment and recovery services, and overdose prevention.
The White House last week came out in support of the House bill while urging Congress to consider its other recommendations, including stricter mandatory minimum sentences that would apply only to cases in which the substance can be associated with death or serious bodily injury.
But on the House floor Thursday, Representative Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, widely denounced the GOP bill, calling it “one-sided” and a futile attempt “to jail our way out of a public health crisis.” .”
“This war on drugs — mandatory sentencing, jailing everybody — has not worked,” Mr. Pallone said. “It didn’t work on other drugs.”
Still, a large group of Democrats, some of them from competitive districts, lined up in support of the measure, eager to show they were working to address the synthetic opioid crisis at a time when Republicans have tried to portray their party as weak in the matter.
Representative Angie Craig of Minnesota, one of 74 Democrats who crossed party lines to support the bill, said she “will not let perfect be the enemy of good here.”
“We have an American crisis right here, and I think what you saw from the White House is that they understand that this is a crisis,” Ms. Craig said, noting that Thursday’s bill “is one that could pass the House, and we’ll see what happens in the Senate.”
The debate was just the latest and most focused fight to play out over fentanyl in Congress, where the synthetic opioid crisis has featured prominently in other politically charged policy battles, such as how to deal with growing threats from China and a stalemate bitter over border security. and immigration. Republicans in particular have often cited the rise in fentanyl-related deaths across the country as a reason to crack down on immigration and blame Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, even though most of the drugs are brought in through ports of entry. by American citizens.
Currently under Schedule I, a person caught trafficking 10 grams of a fentanyl analogue would receive a minimum sentence of five years in prison, while a person in possession of 100 grams would receive a minimum sentence of 10 years. But the legislation would end up lowering those thresholds even further, experts say, because of the way it defines a “fentanyl-related substance,” such that even if a trace amount of the fentanyl analog shows up in a sample of 10 grams, would trigger a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, with some fentanyl analogs, a few milligrams can be a lethal dose.
The legislation makes exceptions for drugs already listed elsewhere — such as fentanyl itself, which, as an ingredient in various federally approved drugs, appears in Schedule II — and for institutions researching fentanyl analogs for potential beneficial use.
But Democrats raised concerns that the bill does not contain guidelines for removing fentanyl-related drugs that were later found to be useful, or reducing or commuting the sentences of people convicted of similar offenses.
A companion bill in the Senate so far has only Republican support, and Democratic leaders weren’t sure how many of their own members might support the effort — especially after the White House’s statement backing it.
The administration has proposed combining the permanent designation of Schedule I fentanyl-related drugs with stricter enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences, as well as a mechanism for removing fentanyl-related drugs found to have medicinal properties and for reducing or vacating any associated criminal convictions. . He has also requested a study of how permanent planning would affect research, civil rights, and the illegal manufacture and trafficking of fentanyl analogs.
Many of these proposals are included in bipartisan bills still pending in Congress.