Morgan Griffith: Taking action to combat fentanyl
Our region of Virginia has known firsthand the devastation of the opioid crisis. In recent years, a new threat has driven up fatal drug overdoses: fentanyl and its analogues.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin. Like other opioids, it has a legitimate medical use as a painkiller. But illicit fentanyl is also often mixed in with other illegal drugs sold on the street. Users may not even know they are ingesting fentanyl, but its extreme potency endangers their lives. A mere two milligrams may be fatal.
The numbers indicate the danger. Across the country, 100,306 people died of fatal overdoses from May 2020 to April 2021, according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data available. Roughly two-thirds of those deaths were related to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances.
Trends in Virginia reflect these national statistics. According to the Commonwealth’s Department of Health, 2,309 fatal drug overdoses occurred in 2020, a record. Fentanyl caused or contributed to 71.8 percent of those deaths. Data for 2021 indicate fatal overdoses this year may surpass last year’s, a tragic milestone.
Most illicit fentanyl comes from China and arrives in our country either through the mail or via smugglers crossing the southern border. Recently, more Mexican cartels have manufactured the fentanyl themselves. Needless to say, the cartel fentanyl comes across the border, too. As President Biden fails to resolve the crisis at the border, traffickers bring more fentanyl across it.
In fiscal year 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized 11,201 pounds of fentanyl. That amount is well over twice that seized in fiscal year 2020 and almost four times the amount seized in fiscal year 2019.
As with the number of illegal immigrant arrests, the amount of illegal narcotics seized generally tracks the amount of overall traffic. More seizures mean more illegal drugs in total being smuggled across the border into our communities.
The pain fentanyl continues to inflict on families across the country demands a response. Unfortunately, the Biden Administration has fallen short. In addition to its lax attitude toward the border, it did not even bother to send a representative from the U.S. Department of Justice to testify at a hearing on fentanyl convened by the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health. The invitation came from the Democrats who constitute the majority but was ignored nonetheless.
In contrast, Republicans are ready to lead on the issue and protect our communities from this scourge. That’s why I introduced the Halt All Lethal Trafficking of (HALT) Fentanyl Act along with Congressman Bob Latta (R-OH).
The HALT Fentanyl Act would permanently classify fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I drugs, those that have the highest potential for abuse. Currently, fentanyl-related substances are subject to only temporary scheduling, which would expire in February 2022. Permanent scheduling properly recognizes the harm fentanyl analogues have caused and could continue to inflict.
Our bill includes more than a simple ban. It makes the process for studying fentanyl-related substances easier, so we can learn more about their dangers as well as any benefits.
Testimony in the Subcommittee on Health hearing about fentanyl indicated how much more research work needs to be done. There are potentially as many as 4,800 fentanyl analogues, but data is available for fewer than 30 – in other words, under one percent of fentanyl-related substances.
Of the work that has been done, most have proven dangerous and a couple inert. One of the witnesses, Dr. Douglas Throckmorton of the Food and Drug Administration, testified that one actually blocks the mu opioid receptor that triggers the dangerous effects of opioids. As a result, it could be beneficial to combating addiction. But we need more data on this analogue and others to know. The HALT Fentanyl Act would allow exemptions for analogues from Schedule I if evidence shows they are warranted.
The HALT Fentanyl Act treats the problem of fentanyl seriously from a science-based perspective. We need this bill, and more bills and executive actions taking a similar approach, to turn the tide and prevent the tragic loss of more lives due to fentanyl.
If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405, my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671, or my Washington office at 202-225-3861. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov. Also, on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Morgan Griffith represents the Ninth District of Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives.