On February 7, President Joe Biden delivered the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. It put a heavy premium on fentanyl crackdowns, falsely claiming that this will decrease rates of opioid-involved overdose when the evidence unambiguously shows that the opposite is true. The administration referenced access to medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) in prisons and jails, but in limited detail.
“Fentanyl is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year. You got it,” Biden said, as angry murmurs rose from the audience and someone audibly yelled: It’s your fault. “So let’s launch a major surge to stop fentanyl production. And the sale and trafficking. With more drug detection machines, inspection cargo, stop pills and powder at the border. Working with couriers like FedEx to inspect more packages for drugs. Strong penalties to crack down on fentanyl trafficking.”
The plan Biden described amounts to increased criminalization and surveillance of drug users.
A current policy that places fentanyl analogs under Drug Enforcement Administration Schedule I is temporary. It will remain in effect until December 31, 2024, by which time Congress must either extend it, let it expire or make it permanent.
The plan Biden described amounts to increased criminalization and surveillance of drug users. Customs and Border Protection currently inspects about 2 percent of passenger vehicles; with increased funding, it plans to inspect about 40 percent by 2026.
Increased criminalization of state-banned drugs leads to increased harms, as the market is pushed toward more potent, less-understood alternatives. At no point in history has prohibition ever stopped people from using drugs; only from using drugs more safely.
Crackdowns on less-potent opioids steered the United States’ illicit drug market toward fentanyl, which over the past decade has caused rates of fatal overdose to climb higher and higher. Crackdowns on fentanyl led to the overdose crisis as we know it today, as people navigate an unprecedentedly tumultuous and dangerous supply that includes not just fentanyl, but fentanyl analogs, xylazine and nitazines.
“I continue to be astonished that a president who claims to believe in harm reduction … would [pursue] this.”
“It’s just very disappointing, for the same reason we’ve been outlining for several years,” Maritza Perez Medina, director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of Federal Affairs, told Filter. “I continue to be astonished that a president who claims to believe in harm reduction, and has taken a new approach in some respects, would [pursue] this.” Biden’s 2022 SOTU was the first to acknowledge harm reduction.
Though it didn’t make into Biden’s actual speech, the pre-released SOTU outline also referenced a plan to expand access to naloxone as well as to MOUD—particularly in prisons and jails, where such access has been historically limited.
All Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities should be “equipped and trained” to provide MOUD by summer 2023, per the SOTU outline. But it’s not clear whether they’ll be required to actually provide it; nor whether this plan will favor naltrexone over methadone and buprenorphine, the two MOUD shown to reduce fatal overdose.
Image of 2023 State of the Union via the White House
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously recieved a restricted grant from the Drug Policy Alliance to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.