On April 8, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) spearheaded a coalition—including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NADCL) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—urging the federal government to allow a class-wide emergency scheduling of fentanyl analogs to expire.
In a newly released letter, they argue that such scheduling has already proved wholly ineffective in combatting the opioid-involved overdose crisis in the United States—nothing more than an enforcement-first, panic-driven extension of the War on Drugs.
In 2018, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) initiated a policy that would classify fentanyl analogs as Schedule I substances—in the same category as cannabis, cocaine and heroin. Under pressure from drug policy and criminal justice activists, however, it determined that classification would only last 15 months, during which time legislators could ostensibly hash out something more definitive.
That never happened. In January 2020, President Donald Trump signed a bill to merely extend the emergency scheduling until May 2021. And President Joseph Biden is now expected to grant it another extension, this time for seven months.
Pointing to lessons from the 1980s, the letter’s signatories warn that policymakers are repeating the same mistakes, overriding a public health approach with panic fueled by legislators and media headlines. In other words, they’re creating a public scare that stands to worsen the crisis through criminalization—a strategy that has never stemmed long-term supply or demand.
The policy will continue to disproportionately incarcerate people of color.
Extending current policy will continue to disproportionately incarcerate people of color, who face higher rates of searches and arrests, and to criminalize drug users and sellers who often aren’t aware of whether there’s fentanyl (or an analog) in their supply. More than 50 percent of fentanyl-related charges in 2019 were brought against street-level sellers. It will also make fentanyl analogs more difficult to access and research for medical professionals—a potential obstacle to uncovering science-based responses to the overdose crisis or other medical uses.
The coalition also portrays the scheduling as a Band Aid-like fix that doesn’t tackle issues head-on. “Overdose deaths form a part of a broader wave of mortality associated with unemployment, alcohol poisoning and suicide, circumstances related to working class economic decline and mental health challenges,” the letter reads.
It’s a familiar plea from advocates, when overdose deaths have surged during the coronavirus pandemic. DPA and hundreds of other groups released a similar statement in January, when President Biden announced Regina LaBelle as the acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Letting the scheduling expire would help the Biden administration to follow through on a promise to end mandatory minimum sentencing, which has led to over-incarceration.
“We have to stop looking for law enforcement responses to public health problems associated with drug use,” Grant Smith, the deputy director of DPA’s Office of National Affairs, said in a press statement. “We have nearly 50 years of evidence to show that it doesn’t work—and it just leaves more bodies, more destruction, and more pain in its wake.”
DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.
Photograph via Drug Enforcement Administration