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Press Release

OP-ED: We Need a Permanent Ban on Fentanyl Analogues

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

In 2017, almost 50,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses.  It’s a sad reality that New England as a whole has been particularly hard hit by opioids. In fact, per capita, of the 12 states across the country with the most opioid overdose fatalities, all six of our states make the list. Much of that is due to illicitly produced fentanyl.
To maintain and build upon a recent decline in opioid overdose deaths nationwide, 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 just a few 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 follow suit and pass the Senate’s bill, a longer term solution is needed. A permanent ban on all fentanyl analogues would send a strong message to the cartels and sophisticated drug operations that pedal illicit fentanyl that the United States is serious about addressing this crisis and their actions will not be tolerated.
Illicit fentanyl is manufactured in labs in China and Mexico. 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 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. Yet, the analogues – which can be up to 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine – will all 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 SOFA 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 New England. 
Despite recent reductions in opioid deaths across New England for the first time in decades, prosecuting drug dealers – particularly those who peddle heroin and fentanyl – remains a top priority for each of our offices. But 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 New England and all 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, any more than there is partisanship about the dangers of ricin or cyanide. And there is certainly nothing partisan about saving lives and bringing justice to those who profit from addiction and even death. For the safety of our New England communities, we urge Congress to pass legislatio nmaking permanent the DEA’s temporary scheduling of all fentanyl-related drugs.
Christina E. Nolan is the United States Attorney for the District of Vermont
Aaron L. Weisman is the United States Attorney for the District of Rhode Island
Scott W. Murray is the United States Attorney for the District of New Hampshire
Andrew E. Lelling is the United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts
Halsey B. Frank is the United States Attorney for the District of Maine
John H. Durham is the United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut

Updated January 22, 2020