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Press Release

California's Four U.S. Attorneys Agree It’s Time for a Permanent Ban on Fentanyl Analogues

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Northern District of California

The following statement was issued by the four U.S. Attorneys who serve California:  David L. Anderson (Northern District of California), Robert S. Brewer (Southern District of California), Nicola T. Hanna (Central District of California), and McGregor W. Scott (Eastern District of California).

 In 2017, almost 50,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses. In California alone, there were 2,428 fatal opioid overdoses in 2018. And it’s getting worse. In San Francisco and Los Angeles counties, for instance, opioid fatalities have increased by 54% and 41%, respectively, since 2016. San Diego County and the Central Valley are also experiencing unprecedented levels of fatal opioid overdoses. This is a crisis, and illicitly produced fentanyl is largely responsible.

To fight this epidemic, law enforcement must have all the necessary tools at their disposal. One such tool is the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) 2018 order making all fentanyl-related drugs illegal in the United States. Unfortunately, that order was temporary and will expire in less than two weeks. The Senate recently passed bipartisan legislation approving a 15-month extension of the temporary order. While this is a step in the right direction, and the House should pass the Senate’s bill, a longer term solution is needed. We need a permanent ban on all fentanyl-like drugs.

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.

Fentanyl, however, is unique. Because it is made in labs using chemicals, its structure is easily manipulated. And the drug cartels that manufacture and traffic this synthetic poison into our neighborhoods 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 illegal in the United States. These drugs, known as “fentanyl analogues,” do as fentanyl does: create more addicts and kill more Americans. The analogues – which can be up to 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine – will become legal if Congress fails to act.

The DEA’s 2018 decision to temporarily schedule – that is, to make illegal – all fentanyl-related substances was a response to the extraordinary legal loophole exploited by drug traffickers. In April 2019, China also outlawed all fentanyl-related substances. This is extraordinary progress, with one caveat. Unlike China’s law, the United States’ has an expiration date.

On Feb. 6, 2020, the DEA’s temporary order expires, and all drugs seized by U.S. investigators over the past two years that have tested positive as fentanyl analogues will no longer be illegal. If Congress fails to pass the 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 on communities already hard hit by the opioid epidemic, many of which are right here in California.

Despite the tireless efforts of law enforcement, California continues to be a main thoroughfare for fentanyl and fentanyl-like drugs arriving from China and Mexico. In 2019, federal law enforcement agents seized approximately three-quarters of a ton of fentanyl at the six ports of entry we share with Mexico and in all places in between. That’s 20 percent more than in 2018. And our federal resources are not infinite; we need all the help we can get. Passing this legislation would provide invaluable support to us as prosecutors and the entire law enforcement community as we continue to combat the opioid crisis in California and throughout America.

A number of organizations have voiced opposition to the proposed legislation, arguing that the bill does not “embrace public health approaches to the overdose crisis.” We agree that a comprehensive approach to the crisis is needed, and a permanent fentanyl analogue ban should be viewed as part of a holistic effort. But time is running out. There is no 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.

There should be nothing partisan about declaring fentanyl analogues illegal. There is certainly nothing partisan about saving lives and bringing justice to those who profit from addiction and death. For the safety of our communities, we urge Congress to pass legislation making permanent the DEA’s temporary scheduling of all fentanyl-related drugs.

Updated January 29, 2020