By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday that would temporarily extend the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) class-wide ban on all variants of the powerful synthetic drug fentanyl, which has helped fuel the opioid crisis in the United States.
The bill, which was identical to a version approved in the Republican-led U.S. Senate earlier this month, will now make its way to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature just before the DEA’s temporary powers on fentanyl analogues expire on Feb. 6.
The legislation falls short of what the Justice Department had hoped to win from Congress.
The department had lobbied to make permanent the class-wide ban first initiated by the DEA in February 2018, meaning all fentanyl analogues would always be listed in the same legal category as heroin and cocaine.
But opposition by criminal justice reform groups and researchers led the Senate to put off a permanent solution by passing legislation that would temporarily extend the DEA’s class-wide ban on fentanyl analogues for another 15 months in order to buy the Government Accountability Office time to study how the policy will affect scientific research.
The measure passed in the Democratic-controlled House by a vote of 320-88.
Synthetic opioids like fentanyl and its variants have been one of the leading causes of drug overdose deaths in the United States.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 41% of the 70,200 drug overdoses in the United States in 2017 were caused by fentanyl and illicit chemical copycats of the drug, which is 100 times more potent than morphine.
The DEA’s temporary emergency order in February 2018 temporarily classified all fentanyl analogues as Schedule 1 drugs, meaning they are highly addictive and have no medical use.
The idea was to get ahead of chemists, many of whom the U.S. government has said are based in China, who have sought to evade federal regulations by tweaking the chemical structure of each drug.
Before that, the DEA and U.S. Food and Drug Administration had to add each new variant uncovered in the black market to Schedule 1 on a case-by-case basis, a lengthy process that could not keep pace with the rate of new analogues being developed.
The new variants also were more difficult to prosecute, as law enforcement officials had to prove they were chemically similar to fentanyl and intended for human consumption.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Peter Cooney)