Justice News

Opening Statement of Amanda Liskamm, Director of Opioid Enforcement and Prevention Efforts, Before the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security
Washington, DC
United States
Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Chairwoman Bass, Ranking Member Ratcliffe, and Members of the Committee: thank you for the opportunity to discuss the Department of Justice’s work to combat the opioid epidemic, the challenges our prosecutors face, and the expiration of DEA’s emergency temporary scheduling order of fentanyl-like substances.

I am the department’s Director of Opioid Enforcement and Prevention Efforts.  I have over 13 years of experience as a drug prosecutor: working as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and a Deputy Section Chief in the Criminal Division where I have prosecuted the most dangerous drug traffickers and cartels.  I know drug traffickers. And I know the deadly lengths they will go to make money.

As our nation faces unprecedented overdoses and deaths caused by opioids, the Department is responding with every tool available.  My position in the Office of the Deputy Attorney General was created to focus entirely on the issue, implement Department initiatives and policies relating to opioids, and coordinate the efforts of our many components.

Over the years, the demand for illicit opioids became more pervasive following years of over prescription of legal medications. Yet while the department and the nation have seen usage of controlled prescription drugs decrease, the number of overdose deaths in the United States has reached record levels.  One of the chief causes is the proliferation of fentanyl and – relevant for today’s hearing – of illicitly produced, potent substances structurally related to fentanyl.

Traffickers of these fentanyl-like substances specifically engineer them to skirt a coverage gap in U.S. drug control laws.  And often times the first time we would learn of these new fentanyl-like substances was through a sudden rash of overdose deaths in our communities.  This unprecedented threat called for unprecedented measures and in February of 2018, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) responded by scheduling the entire class of fentanyl-like substances on a temporary emergency basis.  Since DEA's scheduling action, this gap has been filled.  In response to the class-wide scheduling order, we’ve seen a significant decrease in encounters of fentanyl-like substances and a reduced production of these substances by traffickers.

But DEA’s emergency temporary scheduling action controlling all fentanyl-like substances will expire on Feb. 6, 2020, absent further action by Congress to make it permanent.  That’s in just nine days.  If that gap in U.S. law controlling fentanyl-like substances remerges, the department and DEA fully expect drug traffickers to fill it and take the United States back to the even more deadly phases of this epidemic.

I can personally tell you how savvy these drug traffickers are.  When there’s a gap in U.S. law, they take full advantage of it, which results in more drugs, and more deaths.  We’ve seen Chinese criminal organizations, Mexican cartels, and other traffickers push illicit fentanyl for its profitability and potency.  Permanent class wide scheduling is the necessary step to counter these criminal organizations.

From a legal perspective, class-wide scheduling alleviates DEA’s cat and mouse game of emergency scheduling newly encountered fentanyl analogues substance-by-substance and gives law enforcement and prosecutors, like me, an efficient tool to bring traffickers to justice.

With DEA’s temporary order, the United States became an international leader in addressing the emergence of fentanyl-like substances.  The U.S. has also engaged with many countries who are likewise facing these public safety challenges.  Prompted in part by the urging of the United States, China announced the class-wide control of fentanyl-like substances on May 1, 2019, a significant step to alleviate the production in China and the influx of these poison substances in our communities.  We must take action and make DEA’s order permanent to ensure the United States is doing as much as China in responding to our own nation’s opioid epidemic.

To close, I want to reiterate the importance of this issue to the department and to me.  As a prosecutor, I can tell you, that a legislative solution for class wide fentanyl scheduling is necessary.  We are running out of time and if a solution isn’t found, prosecutors will undoubtedly be hindered and drug traffickers will undoubtedly be helped.  There are many proposed solutions to counter the threat from fentanyl being debated, but permanent class wide scheduling is a necessary step.  We cannot afford to take a step backwards in our fight against fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

We are at a crossroads and in just nine days we have a choice to make in dealing with this public health crisis: (1) return to a reactive process where we schedule on a substance by substance basis only after a rash of deaths in our community; or (2) continue the class-wide scheduling which has proven effective and is working to keep this deadly poison out of our communities.

Thank you for the Committee’s interest and attention to this important issue and I look forward to answering your questions.

Updated January 28, 2020