By Vaiva Utaraite
WASHINGTON, DC – More than 50 different national, state and local public health and criminal defense organizations have written a letter to the Biden Administration urging a no vote on the “Halt All Lethal Trafficking of Fentanyl (HALT) Act.”
Some of the organizations involved include the Drug Policy Alliance, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Harm Reduction Coalition and the Vera Institute of Justice.
This bill, signors insist, would permanently schedule “fentanyl-related substances (FRS) on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) based on a flawed class definition, impose mandatory minimums, and fail to provide an offramp for removing inert or harmless substances from the drug schedule.”
Schedule I drugs, said the groups, are those that have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” which the organizations say is not valid for FRS.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that “some FRS’s are inert and that at least one may be an opioid antagonist that behaves like naloxone, which is itself an opium derivative that counteracts the effects of opioid drugs.”
Classifying FRS as Schedule I would place “undue restrictions” and would not allow researchers to study their therapeutic properties “at a time when the U.S. is experiencing record number overdose deaths,” said the organizations.
Mandatory minimums would have “very real criminal justice consequences,” said the group.
Advocates for the bill claim that this statement is not true, stating that “the bill is not intended to interact with the criminal justice system and that mandatory minimums are primarily a deterrent against foreign import of FRS.”
This bill seems to mirror what was done in the 1980s, when “policymakers enacted severe mandatory minimums for small amounts of crack cocaine,” which was fueled by the “mythology and fear” created by media, those opposed to the measure argue. They added that harsher penalties were enforced for crack, commonly associated with Black people, than for cocaine which was tied to White people, regardless of the chemical similarities between the two substances.
“The emergence of fentanyl-related substances in recent years has fueled similar waves of alarmist media and law enforcement headlines that are informed by mythology rather than science. Any further extension of the classwide scheduling policy threatens to repeat past missteps with crack cocaine that policymakers are still working to rectify,” said the groups opposing the fentanyl measure.
The organizations pointed out there is no need to impose new mandatory minimum sentences because “law enforcement officials already have the ability to prosecute these cases pursuant to the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986, which requires that prosecutors show the substances in question are harmful.“
To prevent over-criminalization and “miscarriages of justice” from happening, there are a number of bills that the organizations urge policymakers to turn their attention to, including “the Save Americans from the Fentanyl Emergency (SAFE) Act, the Temporary Emergency Scheduling and Testing of Fentanyl Analogues Act (TEST) Act of 2022, and the Support, Treatment, and Overdose Prevention of Fentanyl (STOP Fentanyl) Act of 2021.”
The letter signers said bills such as these promote “increased access to harm reduction services and substance use disorder treatment, improved data collection, and other evidence-based methods to reduce overdose,” all of which effectively work together to “address the opioid epidemic” and ensure that the criminal justice system does not fall back to harmful practices.