Strengthening tools to address synthetic opioids

Dan Newhouse, U. S. Congressman

In the U.S., 91 people die every day from an opioid overdose. Due to the rise in fatal overdoses, life expectancy in the U.S. has recently fallen. The problem affects our communities in Central Washington: According to the Washington Department of Health, from 2012 to 2016, opioid overdoses contributed to the deaths of 300 people in the 4th Congressional District.
I recently hosted a public Opioid Summit in Moses Lake and heard from law enforcement on the scope of the problem and from families whose lives have been impacted by the crisis. Attendees learned from local law enforcement that Moses Lake is a major hub for the transportation of opioids. One constituent was brave enough to share the personal story of her family. Her son, Eli, was exposed to opioids in high school, and he struggled with recovery despite support from his family. Ultimately, Eli passed away in 2014 at the age of only 22 years.
One of the ways we can address aspects of this crisis is to give law enforcement the tools they need to deal with the growing problem of synthetic opioid trafficking. Fentanyl is a powerful painkiller and a synthetic opioid that is 30-50 times more potent than heroin and 50-100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In 2017, for the first time, fentanyl became the leading cause of deaths related to opioid abuse, more than prescription drugs or heroin.
Fentanyl can be used legally as pain relief, but illegal versions are trafficked across the border or via mail. One of the major problems law enforcement faces is that criminals are able to find a shortcut by selling slightly altered versions of the same synthetic drugs – which can take years to be scheduled as illicit substances.
The incentives to traffic fentanyl are tied to enormous potential profits. Fentanyl is inexpensive to produce, but it can be sold on the black market well above its cost to produce. In a recent story in the Tri-City Herald, a suspected fentanyl seller was caught attempting to sell as much as a thousand pills for $22 each.
Last week, I voted in the House to pass bipartisan legislation, H.R. 2851, the Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues (SITSA) Act of 2017, which would modernize the Controlled Substances Act by updating the scheduling system and giving federal law enforcement tools it needs to address synthetic opioids. SITSA provides a faster mechanism by which slightly altered versions of similar synthetic drugs can be temporarily or permanently added to the Schedule A by the U.S. Attorney General. The legislation also adds to current law an offense for false labeling of altered versions of controlled substance.
The stories I heard from constituents at my recent Opioid Summit strengthened my resolve to address this national crisis on multiple fronts, including modernizing enforcement. This week, the House of Representatives will continue to consider bipartisan opioid-related legislation to assist families with prevention and treatment efforts.

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