Lawmakers are trying to draw attention to a rapidly emerging overdose crisis caused by synthetic drugs, less than two months after a bill to combat prescription opioid and heroin abuse was signed into law.
The opioid measure included provisions that make it easier for the government to prosecute drug traffickers, but synthetic drugs pose a different kind of challenge that wasn’t addressed in the legislation. While most drugs are on a list of controlled substances, synthetics can escape law enforcement scrutiny if the chemists who make them tweak their formulas slightly.
According to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, was responsible for more than 5,000 deaths in 2014 — up from around 1,000 a year earlier. Fentanyl used for medicinal purposes was responsible for some of those deaths, but the CDC attributed most of that increase to illicitly manufactured drugs. The singer Prince, who suffered from hip pain, died in April from what Minnesota officials said was an accidental overdose of self-administered fentanyl.
Lawmakers have introduced numerous legislative proposals to address this challenge, but those likely to have the greatest short-term impact might also face the most opposition. That’s because drugs like fentanyl have legitimate medical uses as a painkiller, and there is a fear that tighter controls on these drugs could hinder pharmaceutical research.
For now, the focus has been on stopping the drugs from entering the United States. Many of the illegally synthesized drugs are coming in from China, a problem that Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania highlighted in a May letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.
“China’s lax regulatory controls have enabled unscrupulous chemists and drug cartels to manufacture and export deadly fentanyl-like products into our country,” Toomey said in a statement last week.
During President Barack Obama’s visit to China earlier this month, Beijing agreed to target U.S.-bound exports of substances that are legal in China but illegal here. The White House did not specify all of the substances that China agreed to target, but in an e-mail, a spokesman said that fentanyl and its derivatives will be a focus.
“We appreciate Beijing’s efforts to better regulate and control substances and chemicals of concern, and recognize the enhanced dialogue between our law enforcement agencies that are united in disrupting transnational criminal organizations,” said Myles Caggin, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Because illicit synthetic drug makers can tweak their formulations to avoid being considered a controlled substance, legislative solutions often focus on other aspects of the problem. Toomey has introduced a bill that would require the State Department to report on countries who are considered traffickers of illicit fentanyl.
Sen. Rob Portman was a primary backer of the opioid legislation and, like Toomey, the Ohio Republican is facing a re-election challenge in a state that has acutely felt the problems caused by synthetics. Last month, the area around Portman’s hometown of Cincinnati saw at least 200 overdoses and three deaths caused by carfentanil, a powerful derivative of fentanyl that’s primarily used as an elephant tranquilizer.
In response, Portman introduced legislation that would require shipments from foreign countries through the United States Postal Service to provide electronic customs data, including descriptions of the contents, in advance of coming into the U.S. Currently, shippers are not always required to furnish that information themselves, leaving Customs and Border Protection to piece together the information. Portman said law enforcement could more easily head off shipments of illegal synthetic drugs if they could better track who is sending the packages and where they are going.
Another tactic used by the makers of illicit synthetic drugs to escape legal scrutiny is to label their packages “not intended for human consumption.” A Senate bill introduced last month by Republican John Hoeven of North Dakota and Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware would allow law enforcement to treat drugs labeled like that as controlled substances.
Even though there is concern that classifying more drugs as controlled substances keeps the government one step behind illicit drug makers, that is still seen as an important legislative tactic. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California has introduced a bill to establish an interagency committee that could more rapidly schedule new illicit formulations.
The quickest short-term fix would be to add new synthetics to the list of controlled substances, which Congress itself can do. A Senate bill from Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa would add 22 drugs to the list. A bill in the House from GOP Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania would add around 300.
Despite a short fall schedule, spokespersons for the Judiciary committees have not ruled out action on any of these bills. But a pair of distinct concerns might make a more conservative scheduling proposal like the Senate’s easier to pass. For Democratic lawmakers concerned about mandatory minimum sentencing, more illegal substances could result in more low-level drug offenders being put in jail at the taxpayers’ expense.
Drugmakers also are raising concerns that scheduling more of these substances would have an impact on research. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry’s influential Washington lobbying arm, thinks that the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to schedule new synthetics on an emergency basis is adequate and that some of these bills might represent legislative overreach.
“Given the complexities and expertise required to make these assessments, scheduling decisions should not be legislated, but left to the appropriate federal agencies’ existing processes,” a spokesperson said in an email.