WASHINGTON — The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration wants to make it easier for federal prosecutors to go after people who peddle illicit versions of the deadly opioid fentanyl that are fueling the nation’s drug abuse crisis.
The agency said Thursday it intends to classify drugs that are chemically similar to fentanyl as illegal controlled substances, letting prosecutors avoid the hurdles they often face in bringing charges in such cases.
The move aims to stop the flow of fentanyl variants into the U.S. as the opioid abuse crisis rages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the drug and its analogues killed more than 20,000 Americans last year, and the number is rising.
The new classification, which would last two years, lets prosecutors bring charges against fake-fentanyl traffickers under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Prosecutors have been able to use the Analogue Act for cases involving variants, but that requires them to call chemists and other experts to prove that, while molecularly different, the drugs are just as potent and dangerous as fentanyl in its true form. Prosecutors often complain of being stymied by the additional hurdles that delay cases and sometimes lead to charges being dropped.
The change comes as the Trump administration faces increasing pressure to combat the worst drug crisis in U.S. history. The Justice Department is increasingly focused on manufacturers of the powerful narcotic and those who import it into the U.S.
Authorities last month announced an indictment against two Chinese nationals they said manufactured tons of fentanyl-related drugs, but with no extradition treaty with China, the chances are slim they will ever be brought to the U.S. to face the charges.
Law enforcement officials are frustrated by chemists who frequently alter the chemical compounds in their drugs to create substances that are not expressly illegal. Justice Department and DEA officials say they play a constant game of “whack-a-mole” to keep up with the changes.
But the new classification would empower authorities to “take swift and necessary action against those spreading these deadly poisons,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said.
A DEA official says the agency hopes the Food and Drug Administration will permanently ban fentanyl spin-offs.
— Sadie Gurman