OP-ED: Congress Must Act to Permanently Ban Lethal Drugs

by Tim Garrison, U.S. Attorney for Missouri’s Western District

A Grain Valley, Missouri, teenager ingested what he thought was just half of an oxycodone pill, and it nearly cost him his life.

The teenage victim didn’t know the pill he bought on the street in the Westport area of Kansas City was laced with a synthetic drug called carfentanil, which is 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Carfentanil is an analogue, or a chemically altered version, of the potent opioid fentanyl, and has been linked to a significant number of overdose deaths across the country.

In this case, the victim was fortunate to receive emergency medical treatment and survived his overdose. The man who sold him the pill, Gage Lankas, was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison.

This tragic scenario is repeated too often in communities from Springfield to Columbia and throughout the state. Fatal drug overdose deaths are on the rise in Missouri. In 2018, 1,635 Missourians died from drug overdose deaths. The vast majority of drug overdose deaths (1,132) were opioid overdoses.

Fentanyl and its analogues (like carfentanil) pose a greater risk of overdose than many other opioids. Only a couple of milligrams – the size of a few grains of salt – is enough to kill the average person. Drug dealers lace their products with fentanyl (which is 50 times more powerful than heroin) to make them more potent. Their customers, like the teenager in Grain Valley, often don’t know they are ingesting fentanyl, or how much.

It’s no secret where fentanyl is coming from — laboratories in China and Mexico manufacture huge amounts of fentanyl and smuggle it into the United States. For example, Edgar Reyes-Toscano was sent to prison last November after he was caught at a Kansas City bus station carrying a duffel bag that contained more than 3.5 kilograms of fentanyl and more than 2.3 kilograms of methamphetamine. When a few grains of fentanyl can be lethal, imagine the danger of more than seven pounds of fentanyl distributed on the streets of our community.

Law enforcement must have the resources to combat this deadly crisis of opioid overdose deaths caused by an influx of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues smuggled into our country. Congress this week voted to temporarily preserve one critical tool, however, there is more that must be done.

Until recently, fentanyl manufacturers could evade federal laws by making small adjustments to the chemical formula and thus creating a new, unregulated drug. These fentanyl analogues, because of their molecular variations, took advantage of a coverage gap in U.S. drug control laws.

In 2018, the DEA took emergency action. Rather than racing to schedule each of these new drugs as they are created and discovered, the DEA scheduled the entire class of fentanyl-like drugs. This authorized federal law enforcement to combat newly emerging fentanyl analogues as aggressively as fentanyl. As a result, there has been a marked decrease in the production of fentanyl analogues over the past two years.

That emergency order would have expired next week; fortunately, the U.S. House of Representatives authorized an extension yesterday of the DEA’s scheduling action controlling fentanyl analogues. The U.S. Senate unanimously approved an identical bill earlier this month, so the measure now awaits the president’s signature.

This is a step in the right direction, but further steps are still needed.

Beyond this temporary extension, a permanent legislative solution for class-wide fentanyl scheduling is necessary so that we don’t find ourselves in this position again, on the brink of opening the floodgates to drug traffickers. The proposed Stopping Overdoses of Fentanyl Analogues legislation has been introduced in Congress and endorsed by the attorneys general in all 50 states.

Missouri has a significant stake in Congressional action. Even as the Centers for Disease Control reports that drug overdose deaths are declining nationally, Missouri is one of the few states where overdose deaths have actually increased. Overdose deaths increased by 16.3 percent in 2018, the latest statistics available, ranked second in the nation only to Delaware (which increased by 16.7 percent). This increase is primarily due to opioids like fentanyl and its analogues. Missouri’s opioid epidemic affects all genders, all races, and many age groups in both rural and urban Missouri communities.

These deadly drugs should be made permanently illegal. The passage of this legislation is quite literally a matter of life and death.

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