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White House walks political tightrope with plan to criminalize fentanyl

Attempts by the White House to reach common ground on how to deal with the still raging opioid epidemic have drawn fire from across the ideological spectrum, with progressives accusing President Joe Biden of suing a failed war on drugs and some conservatives claiming he is gentle on drug dealers. But the plan may still find a sweet spot in Congress.

The problem is the recommendation by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy to permanently criminalize fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has played a major role in the 30% increase in drug overdose deaths in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The increase in the death toll from overdose to over 93,000 – is one of the largest in American history.

As of 2018, an emergency order classified fentanyl and its analogues – a wide variety of drugs with similar chemical structures in Schedule I, a category for substances like heroin and LSD without accepted medical use. . This ordinance, which was due to expire in May, was extended by Congress until October.

But the extension infuriated some progressives, who pointed out that fentanyl had long been prescribed by doctors as a pain reliever. They argued that the administration was continuing the policies of a failed drug war.

At the time, the White House said it would work to address progressive concerns.

The Office of National Drug Control’s proposal, released earlier this month, sought a compromise: it would permanently classify fentanyl as a Schedule I drug in a major demand by moderate Democrats and Republicans but exempt offenders. non-violent mandatory minimum sentencing requirements that generally go hand in hand with designation. It would also change the rules to allow more research on Schedule I drugs, which the administration says should help better understand and prevent overdoses and drug addiction.

The proposal was immediately criticized by both polarized ends of the ideological spectrum. Arkansas GOP Senator Tom Cotton said the mandatory minimum sentence exceptions were “unacceptable.” A coalition of progressive and civil rights groups said this “echoes the failed drug policies of our past.”

“It seems to be the same knee-jerk response to the drug-related problems in this country,” said Jesselyn McCurdy, a senior official with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “After 50 years of the war on drugs, we find that the simple criminalization of drug users does not work. “

Those with the final say are likely to be a group of moderate senators from states decimated by the opioid epidemic, especially the Sens. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.), Maggie Hassan (DN.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio.) And they seem open to the White House proposal.

In an interview earlier this year, Hassan lashed out at progressives who she said were naïve about the need to punish distributors of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues, who are increasingly being mixed with drugs. more common recreational activities.

“We need a public health approach,” Hassan said. “But we also need to be clear about the drivers of this epidemic, whether it’s vicious cartels or overzealous big pharmaceutical companies prescribing drugs they know are addictive.”


Senator Maggie Hassan (DN.H.) said that we “need to be clear about the drivers of this epidemic, whether it is vicious cartels or overzealous big pharmaceutical companies prescribing drugs that they know are wrong. they create dependency ”.

Hassan, who faces a potentially difficult re-election against GOP Governor Chris Sununu, has made tackling the opioid epidemic a key part of his political identity in the Biden era. She helped boost Janet Woodcock’s potential appointment to lead the Food and Drug Administration over concerns that Woodcock was too close to the drugmakers who helped fuel the early stages of the opioid epidemic. (Hassan has his own ties to the pharmaceutical industry, having received tens of thousands of corporate PAC donations from pharmaceutical companies over the years.)

Hassan, however, seems inclined to support Biden’s proposal. A spokesperson said the senator was still reviewing comments on the plan, but was “happy to see the administration recognize and take continued action to keep fentanyl and similar substances under tight control.”

Portman, who co-sponsored legislation with Manchin to permanently list fentanyl in Schedule I, also praised the compromise proposal.

“Not only is a permanent solution essential in our fight against drug addiction in this country, it is also vital in ensuring that law enforcement can continue to protect our communities by bringing criminal charges against the people who manufacture, distribute or handle these deadly drugs, ”says Portman.

The White House began briefing lawmakers and discussing the proposal last week, and is hoping the plan can be passed by Congress before the extension expires on October 22 in a busy schedule in both chambers.

Yet McCurdy and other progressives hope to persuade Democrats to reject the administration’s proposals. She said civil rights groups were looking to work with allies like Sen. Cory Booker (DN.J.) and members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the House to reject the proposal.

The Biden administration is touting its public health measures to deal with the crisis. The administration has asked the Department of Health and Human Services for more than $ 10 billion to expand drug treatment programs and has supported legislation designed to eliminate sentencing disparities between white and black drug users.

Many of these measures have been criticized by the Conservatives. Republicans, including Cotton, pounced on a Fox News report claiming Biden’s fentanyl proposal amounted to weakening drug trafficking penalties – unaware that the penalties had to be lifted altogether if an extension was not enacted.

So far, the mandatory minimum sentences that the administration seeks to eliminate have only applied in eight continuing cases since the initial emergency schedule was put in place in 2018.


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