Drug policy reform advocates are condemning the House’s passage of a bill that would ramp up federal criminalization of fentanyl analogues—criticizing the move as a backwards, punitive response to the overdose crisis—even if it does contain additional provisions to streamline research into Schedule I drugs like marijuana and psychedelics.
The House approved the Halt All Lethal Trafficking of Fentanyl (HALT) Act in a 289-133 vote on Thursday, with 74 Democrats joining all but one Republican in advancing the legislation to the Senate.
The measure would classify fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), including analogues that haven’t proven to carry the same risks as the most well-known potent opioid. Advocates say the scheduling action would increase mandatory minimum sentences, reflecting an outmoded war on drugs mentality that would contribute to mass incarceration.
“It appears many of my colleagues haven’t learned the lessons of the failed war on drugs,” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) said following the vote. “We’ve seen an explosion of our prison populations, while drug overdoses continue to climb. Our nation’s overdose crisis is a public health issue, not criminal one.”
It appears many of my colleagues haven’t learned the lessons of the failed war on drugs.
We’ve seen an explosion of our prison populations, while drug overdoses continue to climb.
— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) May 25, 2023
Watson Coleman and Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) released a joint statement on Thursday emphasizing that the “criminalization of poverty, drug use and possession, inequitable access to resources, and the militarization of police have all had devastating impacts, particularly on Black and brown communities.”
“Without proper redress and structural solutions rooted in equity and public health, lives will continue to be at risk and our nation’s families and communities will continue to be destabilized,” the congresswomen said. “We have an opportunity to fully transform federal drug policy in our country. We must correct our path towards one of compassion and healing, not continue down the road of the failed policies of the past.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) tried to use the legislation as a vehicle to federally legalize marijuana, but his amendment was not made in order by the House Rules Committee earlier this week. Another amendment that didn’t advance to the floor would have required a study into the prevalence of “fentanyl-tainted” cannabis.
Instead, the legislation—which also contains provisions to generally streamline research into Schedule I drugs—was largely kept intact and passed, with the support of the White House.
“Instead of passing bills that expand the failed War on Drugs, we should be focusing on regaining operational control of the border,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), the sole Republican who voted against the legislation, said. “Additionally, one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentences are unwise, and this bill increases the number of defendants subject to them.”
Instead of passing bills that expand the failed War on Drugs, we should be focusing on regaining operational control of the border. Additionally, one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentences are unwise, and this bill increases the number of defendants subject to them. pic.twitter.com/rDeSJ6G4UE
— Thomas Massie (@RepThomasMassie) May 25, 2023
A coalition of advocacy groups, led by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), strongly criticized the House vote and urged the Senate to reject the legislation.
“Our communities deserve real health solutions to the overdose crisis, not political grandstanding that is going to cost us more lives,” Maritza Perez Medina, director of DPA’s office of federal affairs, said. “Yet, sadly, in passing the HALT Fentanyl Act, the House seems intent on doubling down on the same failed strategies that got us here to begin with.”
“While it may seem politically expedient to crack down on fentanyl and its analogues, history has shown us time and again, this only creates further harm. Increasing criminal penalties and expanding the use of mandatory minimums, as this bill does, has never reduced the supply or demand of illicit drugs,” she said. “Instead, it only exacerbates racial disparities in the criminal legal system and creates the conditions for an even more unknown, and more potent, drug supply to flourish.”
Laura Pitter, deputy director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, said that it’s “sad to see lawmakers revert to over-criminalization once again when we have 50 years of evidence that the war on drugs has been an abject failure.”
“A vote for this bill was a vote against evidence and science,” Pitter said. “We know that harsher criminal penalties have done nothing to address the overdose crisis, which has only gotten exponentially worse since Congress put the temporary class-wide scheduling policy into place. This would make that policy permanent and not only entrench mandatory minimums but expand them.”
On Monday, the White House issued a statement of administration policy expressing support for the legislation—which cleared the House Energy & Commerce Committee in March—calling on “Congress to pass all of these critical measures to improve public safety and save lives.”
But advocates like Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) Executive Director Lt. Diane Goldstein (Ret.) argue that the bill would have the opposite effect.
“I lost my brother to an overdose, so I understand the pain that so many families in our country are feeling during this crisis,” Goldstein said. “As a retired police professional, I know that increasing penalties for fentanyl will cost us more lives because people will be even more afraid to call 911 if they see someone succumbing to overdose for fear of a long prison sentence.”
Jesselyn McCurdy of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said that the “classwide scheduling that this bill imposes will exacerbate pretrial detention, mass incarceration, and racial disparities in the prison system, doubling down on a fear-based, enforcement-first response to a public health challenge.”
Rather than enact punitive legislation broadly targeting fentanyl-related substances, reform groups say that lawmakers should support alternative measures like the Support, Treatment, and Overdose Prevention of Fentanyl (STOP Fentanyl) Act, which would expand access to harm reduction services and substance misuse treatment resources.
“Fifty years after the beginning of mass incarceration, the evidence is clear: the War on Drugs has harmed communities,” Liz Komar of The Sentencing Project said. “Harsh punishments don’t save lives or make us safer. We urge Congress to remember the lessons of the 1980’s and 1990’s—mandatory minimums are not the answer to the overdose crisis.”
Despite the bill’s main punitive-focused thrust, other provisions of the HALT Fentanyl Act that aim to expedite registrations for studies into Schedule I drugs and allow for limited manufacturing by researchers could address some concerns surrounding how the strict classification of marijuana, psychedelics and other substances has impeded science.
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Some of the research provisions of the bill are similar to those contained in a marijuana-focused measure that President Joe Biden signed into law last year, giving the U.S. attorney general 60 days to either approve a given application or request supplemental information from a prospective research applicant. It also creates a more efficient pathway for researchers who request larger quantities of cannabis.
Under the bill, a research applicant who is actively registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to study Schedule I and II drugs would need to have their request assessed within 30 days of sending a notice to the Justice Department.
A non-registered applicant would have to have their submission considered within 45 days of sending the notice.
The measure also states that research that’s being conducted or funded by federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would qualify for expedited processing.
Further, the bill says that duplicative registrations would no longer be required for all researchers involved in an approved study of a Schedule I substance if they’re all part of the same research institution.
The legislation goes on to say that “a person who is registered to perform research on a controlled substance may perform manufacturing activities with small quantities of that substance…without being required to obtain a manufacturing registration, if such activities are performed for the purpose of the research and if the activities and the quantities of the substance involved in those activities.”
The HALT Fentanyl Act was introduced last Congress as well, but it did not advance at the committee level.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) posted a request for information (RFI) last year, seeking input on barriers to cannabis research specifically to help “strengthen the scientific evidence” of the plant’s therapeutic potential.
This month, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) separately started soliciting proposals for a series of research initiatives meant to explore how psychedelics could be used to treat drug addiction, with plans to provide $1.5 million in funding to support relevant studies.
On the Senate side last month, Republicans blocked a procedural vote to advance a bill to the floor that would promote research into the therapeutic effects of marijuana for military veterans with certain conditions.