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We can’t wait for the pandemic to end to fight the opioid overdose surge

As fentanyl classification deadline nears, now is the time to redouble our efforts

Families with relatives who have died from opioids attend a Feb. 24 news conference in Los Angeles for the DEA rollout of Operation Engage to increase public awareness about the dangers of opioids often found in counterfeit pharmaceutical pills.
Families with relatives who have died from opioids attend a Feb. 24 news conference in Los Angeles for the DEA rollout of Operation Engage to increase public awareness about the dangers of opioids often found in counterfeit pharmaceutical pills. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images file photo)

Drug-related overdoses, especially those attributed to opioids, are surging during the coronavirus pandemic. With over 500,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19, policymakers are rightly focused on vaccines, therapies, testing and other public health measures. But we can’t ignore the growing drug epidemic and risk it spiraling even further out of control.

More than 40 states have reported an increase in opioid-related deaths during the pandemic, the American Medical Association reports. And more than 81,000 people died of drug overdoses between May 2019 and May 2020 — the highest 12-month total in our nation’s history — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Looking specifically at opioids, the CDC says fentanyl overdose deaths rose nearly 40 percent over that period, the largest spike of any drug. This deadly, synthetic drug knows no ZIP code and is devastating individuals and families all across the country. Fentanyl has become a significant problem in my home state of Ohio, where state troopers seized a total of 129 pounds of fentanyl in 2020 – enough to kill more than 60 million people.

We must act quickly to reverse these troubling trends and return to the hopeful progress we were seeing over the past few years. In part because of the anti-drug legislation we passed in Congress, nationwide overdose deaths declined in 2018 for the first time since 1990. Congress can help by passing a bipartisan bill I introduced with Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., to more effectively confront one of the biggest drivers in the overdose spike — illicitly manufactured fentanyl — and address a looming deadline on May 6. 

Fentanyl is a drug 50 to 100 times deadlier than morphine; just one pound of it is lethal enough to kill nearly half a million people. What’s more, fentanyl is often found laced in with other drugs, including psychostimulants like methamphetamines and cocaine, further complicating our efforts to combat its deadly effects. It is cheaply and illegally manufactured in China and often then laced with other drugs and smuggled across our southern border or sent directly into the country through the U.S. mail.

In order to avoid prosecution, prior to 2018, drug traffickers started making slight modifications to fentanyl, sometimes adjusting a single molecule and creating what are called fentanyl analogues. While analogues have the same narcotic properties as fentanyl, their tiny variations allow them to evade prosecution.

In recognition of the dangers posed by this situation, the Drug Enforcement Agency in 2018 used its authority to temporarily classify fentanyl analogues as Schedule I substances, which are a class of drugs considered to have no medical use but a high potential for abuse. Scheduling fentanyl analogues in this manner allows law enforcement to aggressively intercept and destroy these substances.

Unfortunately, this designation was only temporary. In 2019, Congress was able to extend that designation until May 6, 2021. But after that, criminals who run labs in China and Mexico will be able to avoid law enforcement as they flood the U.S. with unlimited deadly fentanyl.

Our bipartisan FIGHT Fentanyl Act would fix this problem by permanently classifying fentanyl analogues as Schedule I. While there will be more work to do to turn the tide of addiction and protect our communities against synthetic opioids, this would be an important step toward rededicating our efforts to stop these drugs from stealing thousands of lives and causing so much pain.

The COVID-19 crisis will continue to be at the forefront of our minds as we work to defeat this unprecedented pandemic, but Congress must also continue its work to address the addiction crisis in our country. This is an epidemic that preceded COVID-19 and will sadly likely persist afterward.

Now is the time to redouble our efforts to ensure we can stem the tide of addiction and save lives. Passing the FIGHT Fentanyl Act and other bipartisan initiatives in the new Congress would do just that.

Sen. Rob Portman is a Republican representing the state of Ohio. He serves as ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and is also a member of the Finance and Foreign Relations committees.

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