The administration had hoped the deal, a copy of which was turned
over to the Senate in the fall, would pave the way for Congress to
pass their draft legislation into law, but so far it has failed to
The measure would allow the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to
permanently place all fentanyl analogues into the same legal
category as heroin and cocaine. That could make it easier for law
enforcement officials to prosecute people who sell any chemical
look-alike of the drug.
At the same time, the agreement would ease some of the strict rules
governing research around fentanyl analogues, according to the text
seen by Reuters and confirmed by officials from the Justice and
Health and Human Services departments.
Researchers, including some in the federal government, have
complained the proposed permanent restrictions on fentanyl analogues
could hamper their ability to develop new antidotes to drug
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 agreement may come up at a House of Representatives subcommittee
hearing on Tuesday, when officials will testify as lawmakers weigh
whether to extend a temporary order that the DEA imposed two years
ago targeting all fentanyl analogues before it expires on Feb. 6.
The Republican-controlled Senate punted on the issue in January by
voting instead to extend the DEA's powers temporarily for an
additional 15 months to allow for a new study into how it could
impact fentanyl analogue research. The Democratic-controlled House
has yet to act.
The DEA in February 2018 temporarily classified all fentanyl
analogues as Schedule 1 drugs, meaning they are highly addictive and
have no medical use.
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Prior to 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.
The U.S. government has long complained that labs in China have
sought to evade U.S. regulations by tweaking the chemical structure
of each drug.
Since the temporary order went into effect, Justice Department
officials say it has helped deter chemists from creating as many new
versions of fentanyl.
In 2019, the DEA only encountered two new types of fentanyl
analogues, and mail seizures of the drug have dropped about 54% from
2017 to 2018, according to data provided to Reuters.
Criminal justice advocates have raised concerns about the order,
saying it could add to the mass incarceration of low level dealers
and drug addicts.
The agreement on fentanyl variants, forged by the Justice Department
and U.S. Health and Human Services Department last fall, would
enable the HHS Secretary to remove an analogue from Schedule 1 if it
is found to have medical promise without the potential for abuse. It
also would streamline some registration requirements for
Whether it will resolve researchers' concerns, however, remains to
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Tom
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