On Jan. 3, a new U.S. Congress will be sworn into office for the 118th time in our nation’s history. Sadly, for the first time ever, these new and returning legislators will assume office under the dark milestone of more than 100,000 drug-related deaths in the past year — an all-time high. Congress can and must act quickly at the national level to turn this deadly tide.
With drug-related fatalities at an all-time high and likely going higher, it’s clear that the status quo isn’t working. New policy approaches matched with recent innovations in treatment are necessary to overcome the stratospheric overdose rate.
Here are three things the 118th Congress should do to reverse our nightmarish drug overdose crisis:
DECLARE ILLICIT FENTANYL A WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION
In 2022, House members from both political parties introduced legislation seeking to declare illicit fentanyl a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) by the federal government.
Such calls were echoed at the state level, with a bipartisan group of 18 state attorneys general led by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody sending a letter to President Biden asking his administration to designate illicit fentanyl as a WMD.
A report issued in February by the national bipartisan Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking stated: “In terms of loss of life and damage to the economy, illicit synthetic opioids have the effect of a slow-motion weapon of mass destruction in pill form.”
A WMD designation would activate unused and under-used federal resources to counter the flow of illicit fentanyl into the United States and would send an unambiguous message to drug traffickers and the countries that harbor and assist them: The United States will no longer tolerate the importation of illicit fentanyl.
Taking up WMD legislation is something the 118th Congress could do on day one — and the faster they do it, the more lives will be saved.
DESIGNATE MEXICAN DRUG CARTELS AS FOREIGN TERRORIST ORGANIZATIONS
Illicit fentanyl is potent, pervasive, and the number one cause of death of Americans ages 18-45. It’s also coming into this country almost exclusively via Mexican drug cartels who smuggle the poison across the U.S. southern border and into our neighborhoods where it kills thousands of Americans each year.
In September, the situation at the Texas-Mexico border got so bad that Gov. Greg Abbott (R) felt compelled to call on Congress to designate Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations (FTO).
The FTO label would prevent drug cartel members and those who assist them from entering the United States and would give federal prosecutors additional tools to attack the cartels.
Bills that would designate cartels as FTOs were introduced in both the House and Senate in the current Congress. Here’s hoping they advance in the next.
MAKE EMERGENCY SCHEDULING OF ILLICIT FENTANYL ANALOGUES PERMANENT
In 2018, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) temporarily classified fentanyl-related substances known as analogues under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. The move increased penalties for those trafficking in fentanyl analogues but for only two years.
In the time since, Congress has extended the emergency classification while keeping the “temporary” qualifier in place. Congress should make the emergency classification permanent.
It’s a move the current DEA administrator, Anne Milgram, supports. “The permanent scheduling of all fentanyl-related substances is critical to the safety and health of our communities,” she said in a September press release from the White House. “Class-wide scheduling provides a vital tool to combat overdose deaths in the United States.” The incoming Congress should heed her call.