Fentanyl Deaths Fuel Pressure on Biden to Toughen Enforcement

  • Senators want to enshrine government power to ban fentanyl
  • Overdose fatalities require ‘strong signal,’ ex-official says

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A bipartisan group of senators are renewing their push to permanently ban highly addictive fentanyl analogs but are waiting for the Biden administration to weigh in first.

The rise in overdose deaths in the U.S. is partly driven by the presence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be made in various ways, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) said. The pair want to empower the government to classify fentanyl-like drugs among the most-controlled substances.

“Fentanyl analogs are driving up the death toll,” Grassley said Tuesday during a hearing of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.

The two senators’ call for enshrining enforcement powers against drug traffickers reflects growing pressure on the Biden administration to crack down on illicit trade and curb overdose deaths.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Rich and Peg shoot-up a mix of heroin and fentanyl on a street in Kensington on July 19, 2021, in Philadelphia.

Earlier this year, Congress extended the government’s power to ban fentanyl-like substances until the end of October. Some lawmakers wanted these authorities to expire, arguing they contribute to over-policing of people struggling with addiction.

Previously: Lawmakers Agree to Extend Fentanyl Ban, Displeasing Both Parties

The Biden administration asked lawmakers in April to extend the authority temporarily, to allow time to outline a comprehensive approach to dealing with drug trafficking and scheduling fentanyl substances — adding drugs to the list of banned substances.

Regina LaBelle, acting head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said Tuesday her office will have a recommendation for lawmakers on whether to extend the authorities before they expire in October.

“We are grateful that Congress extended the temporary scheduling earlier this year, as it’s given us an opportunity to develop a consensus approach,” she said.

Major Escalation

Overdose deaths in the U.S. surged to 93,331 in 2020, the most the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded in any year, data released earlier this month show. Opioids and fentanyl were among the main drivers of that increase.

A collection of former national security officials penned a letter to the White House recently asking President Joe Biden to declare fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction.

Opioids Rip Through U.S. Workforce, With Deaths at Record Level

The move would represent a major escalation of diplomatic efforts to get countries where fentanyl is manufactured illegally to crack down on the industry, Uttam Dhillon, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration under President Donald Trump, said an interview.

Dhillon said Mexico in particular hasn’t been cooperating with U.S. law enforcement in stemming fentanyl production and trafficking.

“It would send a very strong signal to them that the U.S. now views the drugs that cartels are manufacturing in their countries as literally weapons that attack Americans every day,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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