Prosecutors in the Carolinas urge Congress to renew ban on fentanyl-like drugs

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Federal prosecutors in North and South Carolina are urging Congress to act in the next few days to ensure drugs similar to fentanyl remain illegal.

The U.S. Attorneys in both states wrote about their concerns with so-called fentanyl analogues, which are similar to fentanyl but with slight variations.

“All they have to do is change a molecule, and it’s a different drug,” explained U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon in an interview with CBS 17. “They’re trying to push the envelope. Fentanyl can do that. Fentanyl analogues can do it even more aggressively, and so it becomes more and more dangerous as these drugs are produced and changed.”

Amid the opioid epidemic, drugs laced with fentanyl have become more prevalent, with users sometimes being unaware that it’s even present, which has had deadly consequences. Higdon notes fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin.

He said fentanyl analogues primarily come from drug producers in China and Mexico who have sought to exploit loopholes in federal law.

“The drug producers will alter the drug by one molecule, and then it’s not on that schedule and we have to go through the process again. So, what we’re asking the Congress to do is to extend the emergency scheduling that the DEA did two years ago, so that all fentanyl analogues are now scheduled,” he said.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency acted two years ago to classify fentanyl analogues as Schedule 1 drugs. That classification ends on Feb. 6 unless Congress acts.

“We’ve seen progress made in this area. And, what we’re asking is that we don’t surrender that tool. Keep it as part of the range of tools that we have available to us,” Higdon said.

The Senate has approved a measure that would extend the DEA’s decision.

The ACLU of North Carolina is among the groups concerned about a bill called the Stopping Overdoses of Fentanyl Analogues Act (SOFA), because they’re worried it places too much emphasis on incarceration and not enough on addressing the root issue of addiction.

“We can’t incarcerate and legislate our way out of a healthcare crisis,” said Kristie Puckett Williams, manager of the Statewide Campaign for Smart Justice. “Substance use disorder is a health care issue. People seeking to use opiates is a health care issue.”

The House held a hearing on the issue Tuesday.

Reuters reports the Trump administration has been trying to find a compromise on the issue with Congress, proposing to keep the ban on fentanyl analogues but still allowing for some research on them to take place, which could lead to new treatments for overdoses.

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