Dozens of Democrats join GOP in passing bill on fentanyl-related drug penalties

Legislation to permanently classify fentanyl-like substances into a category reserved for the most dangerous drugs passed the House on Thursday.

The GOP-sponsored HALT Fentanyl Act passed 289-133 with support from 74 Democrats, who wanted to be on record as supporting legislation intended to crack down on the synthetic opioid crisis. 

But the majority of House Democrats opposed the measure, exposing intraparty fault lines. 

Republicans say fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances (FRS) are pouring across the border. The legislation, introduced by Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), aims to curb overdose deaths and protect Americans by giving law enforcement the tools needed to fight those drugs.

Republicans have also criticized the White House for what they say is insufficient efforts to stop the flow of fentanyl into the U.S. from the southern border.

The Biden administration has backed the HALT Fentanyl Act.

In a statement of administration policy earlier this week, the White House said it “has long supported” two key provisions of the bill: permanently classifying all fentanyl analogues as Schedule I drugs and expediting research into such substances. 

“These two provisions are critical components of the Biden-Harris Administration’s 2021 recommendations to Congress to combat the supply of illicit FRS and save lives,” the administration said.

Democrats and public health experts expressed concern that the bill repeats mistakes from the notorious war on drugs by promoting mass incarceration over prevention, treatment and recovery programs. It would establish mandatory minimum sentencing for the distribution of FRS under the Controlled Substances Act. 

In arguing their opposition to the bill, Democrats agreed Congress needs to combat the country’s opioid epidemic, but putting more people in prison is not the answer. They said the bill won’t make a difference in lowering fentanyl overdoses.

In 2022, more than 109,000 people died of drug overdoses; roughly 75,000 of whom died from synthetic opioids — largely illicit fentanyl or fentanyl-related substances.  

“We simply cannot incarcerate our way out of a public health crisis,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said during floor debate.

“The American people deserve bipartisan solutions that address both public safety and public health. This bill fails on both fronts and simply continues the status quo, allowing opioid use disorder and the overdose crisis to continue to devastate American families across the nation,” Pallone said.   

The Trump administration temporarily classified fentanyl-related substances as Schedule 1 drugs, a category reserved for drugs with a high abuse potential and no accepted medical use. 

Congress renewed that classification in 2020 and again last year, and it is set to expire at the end of 2024. The legislation would make the temporary scheduling order permanent.

Fentanyl itself is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for medical use, so it is a Schedule 2 drug. The bill would crack down on illicit fentanyl copycats.

It would also create a special registration process for researchers to conduct studies on the analogue substances for potential medical use.