By Boyi Zheng and Amy Fullerton
WASHINGTON D.C. – President Joe Biden has proposed classifying fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I drugs, but at a U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health last week activists urged Congress to deny Biden’s proposal once it hits the Hill.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, many activists believe enacting this proposal would expand mass incarceration, exacerbate racial disparities and fuel the cycle of substance use present in the criminal justice system.
Instead of approving Biden’s proposal, activists encourage a more public-health centered approach, encouraging use and access to drug test strips and safe injection sites.
As reported by the Drug Policy Alliance, Maritza Perez, director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, emphasized the importance of a public health centered approach to the country’s increasing drug problem.
“Congress must chart a new course to save lives. The only way forward is moving health-centered legislation that can provide life-saving harm reduction services and evidence-based treatment for people who use drugs. Anything less is not a solution — it’s a cop out for Congress,” said Perez.
According to the Senior Director of the Justice Reform Program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Sakira Cook, Congress must treat drug overdose as a public health issue and break away from the current criminal law approach.
Cook believes that Congress should trust the expertise of medical professionals, advocates, and impacted communities, rather than strengthening the deeply biased and flawed legal system.
While criminalization perpetuates the racial and socioeconomic disparity, evidence-based policies, treatment, and harm education address the root cause of this issue, added Cook.
Marta Nelson, Director of Government Strategy at the Vera Institute of Justice, criticized the proposed Biden policy for its poor track records. Biden’s proposed solution has been tested since 2018, after which the overdose mortality rate surged. Neither has drug distribution, sale or usage decreased.
Aamra Ahmad, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Political Advocacy Department, in the report by Drug Policy Alliance, saw two choices in front of every Congress member, “continue to lock up Black and brown people and hope overdoses magically stop, or give people resources and support to lead healthy, dignified lives.”
Ahmad found the proposal grossly prohibiting thousands of chemicals, which would result in further overcrowding the American prison and unproportionally hurting vulnerable communities.
While Ahmad claimed that thousands of chemicals are targeted by the bill, the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crimes recognizes seven major analogues and around 10 less common variations in a 2017 manual on Identification and Analysis of Fentanyl Analogues.
For context, parallel to this blanket ban was the Analogue Act, which prohibited substances structurally similar to Schedule I substances, including fentanyl. However, the Act requires analogues to go under rigorous tests to determine the lack of medical value.
Biden’s critics note such tests are evaded in Biden’s proposal, which expands Schedule I category itself solely based on “relatedness” to fentanyl, rather than being psychoactive or addictive.
The structure and effects of fentanyl analogues is an emerging field where more research is needed, but, as medical professionals complained, the categorization of analogues was not determined by HHS experts.