On November 29, five fentanyl analogues—furanyl fentanyl, 4-fluoroisobutyryl fentanyl, acryl fentanyl, tetrahydrofuranyl fentanyl, and ocfentanil—were officially added to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Schedule I of controlled substances, the most restrictive category, for drugs that have “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.”
This coincides with the US Sentencing Commission’s recently issued guidelines for harsher penalties for people selling fentanyl. Fentanyl itself, which does have accepted medical uses, remains in Schedule II.
In November 2016, the DEA “temporarily placed” the first fentanyl analogue in Schedule I upon the determination that it posed “an imminent hazard to the public safety.” By February 2018 all five analogues had been temporarily placed there. In March 2018, the UN added the five fentanyl analogues to its own Schedule I, which eventually prompted the US decision to officially maintain their categorization.
The move coincides with a Center for Disease Control and Prevention data briefing on overdose fatalities from 2017. The report counted a total of 70,237 drug overdose-related deaths in the United States in 2017. The rate of overdose deaths involving a synthetic opioid other than methadone—like fentanyl—increased by 45 percent between 2016 and 2017, while the rates for deaths involving “natural” opiates, like heroin, or “semi-synthetic” opioids, like oxycodone, stayed constant.
“This process of scheduling drugs is flawed. It’s not science-based and it’s designed to favor law enforcement,” says Grant Smith, the deputy director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. Since Schedule I substances are considered to have no medical or scientific use, access to fentanyl analogues for research will be obstructed.
Criminal penalties don’t correlate precisely with drug scheduling. After all, marijuana is also in Schedule I, though trafficking marijuana is generally punished less harshly than trafficking, say, cocaine. But scheduling does provide some guidance for the criminal justice system. The restrictive scheduling of fentanyl will only bolster the likelihood of aggressive charges—like “drug-induced homicide”—being applied against people selling, or sharing, fentanyl- and fentanyl-analogue-laced drugs.
“People on the bottom of the supply chain, like ‘lookouts’ or those selling on the street-level, will face the brunt of the crackdown on fentanyl,” Smith tells Filter. “Not even the people who import or package the drugs.” He notes that some people who use opioids sell small quantities, often to people they use with, to support their own habit.
This new scheduling, along with the harsher fentanyl penalties, will bolster the same old faulty thinking that prohibition works—and that a drug-free world is possible.