A Congressional committee has approved a bill aimed at increasing the criminalization of substances linked to fentanyl, as well as streamlining research on Schedule I drugs such as marijuana and some psychedelics.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), passed the House Energy & Commerce Committee with one amendment Thursday.
The committee adopted a replacement-like amendment, which deleted original provisions in the bill and replaced them with updated language setting penalties for crimes related to fentanyl and renegotiating requirements for researchers who are interested in studying any Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
Proponents who opposed the War on Drugs were broadly opposed to the legislation, given its primary thrust of permanently placing fentanyl and its analogs on the most restrictive schedules and increasing penalties for activities related to opioid substances.
“We all want to turn the tide on the overdose crisis, which has already claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of our friends, family members and neighbors,” Maritza Perez Medina, director of the Office of Federal Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a press release. “But increasing drug war criminalization is a disproven, failed strategy.”
She added: “By voting in favor of a version of the HALT Fentanyl Act that doubles down on mandatory minimums, proponents of permanent class-wide scheduling are showing their true colors,” she said. “The goal is not to address the overdose crisis and keep people alive. The goal is to grandstand using tough-on-crime rhetoric of the past to control communities and provide a false sense of safety. This approach is not only counterproductive to addressing the issue of overdose, but it will continue to disproportionately impact Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities because of targeted enforcement and oversurveillance.”
Others disagree. “Scheduling fentanyl-related substances should not be a political issue,” Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH) said at the committee markup last week. “Protecting and ensuring the safety of our communities is the reason we are all here in Congress, and working to eradicate the scourge of fentanyl in order to save lives should be one of our top priorities.”
However, other provisions in the bill, which seek to speed up enrollment of research into Schedule I drugs and permit for limited production by researchers, may address some concerns about how stricter classifications of marijuana, psychedelics, and other substances impeded scientific research.
Some research provisions in the bill are similar to ones contained in the marijuana-focused measure that President Joe Biden signed into law last year, giving the US Attorney General 60 days to either approve a given application or seek additional information from the would-be researcher. It also creates a more effective path for researchers requesting larger amounts of cannabis.
Under Griffiths’ bill, which is currently moving through the House, a research requester actively registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for research on Schedule I and II drugs will need their requests evaluated within 30 days of sending the notification to the Department of Justice. A non-registered applicant would have to have his or her application assessed within 45 days of sending a notice.
The measure also states that studies conducted or funded by federal agencies such as the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would be eligible for expedited review.
In addition, the amended bill says duplicative enrollments will no longer be required for all researchers involved in a single approved Schedule I substance research study, as long as all are part of the same research facility.
The Halt All Lethal Trafficking of (HALT) Fentanyl Act was also introduced in Congress last Congress, but did not progress to the committee level.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a Request for Information (RFI) last year seeking views on barriers to marijuana research, particularly in order to “bolster scientific evidence” for the plant’s therapeutic potential.
Meanwhile, federal agencies including HHS and DEA are working to finalize the administrations review of marijuana scheduling, which Mr. Biden directed late last year. HHS and FDA stressed that although their own scientific assessments are binding, the final word is with the DEA on possible scheduling decisions.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said last week he is aware that there is considerable public interest in a timeline for an administrative review of marijuana scheduling, but that “there are some hoops that we need to jump through” before that evaluation is completed.