The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration plans to ban all illicit versions of fentanyl, the highly addictive opioid painkiller responsible for tens of thousands of deadly drug overdoses in the United States in recent years.
The DEA, an arm of the Justice Department, will classify all "fentanyl-related substances" as a Schedule I drug, effectively making their sale illegal, the Department said on Thursday.
The scheduling is the latest step by the Trump administration to combat an epidemic that has killed more than a half-million Americans since 2000.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the move, calling it “an important step toward halting the rising death toll caused by illicit fentanyls in the United States.”
"By scheduling all fentanyls, we empower our law enforcement officers and prosecutors to take swift and necessary action against those spreading these deadly poisons,” Sessions said in a statement.
DEA spokesperson Barbara Carreno said no date has been set for publishing the planned classification in the federal register.
The classification will take effect no earlier than 30 days after the DEA publishes its notice of intent and will last up to two years with the option of a one-year extension.
'Schedules' of drugs
The DEA divides drugs, substances, and chemicals used to make drugs into five categories or “schedules,” depending on their medical purpose and potential for abuse and dependency.
Schedule I drugs, the agency's highest classification, have no medial use and have a high potential for abuse. Heroin and marijuana are among substances currently categorized as Schedule I drugs.
Schedule II drugs have an accepted medical use but have a high potential for abuse. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid pain reliever 100 times more powerful than morphine, is currently listed as a Schedule II drug.
The U.S. opioid epidemic is being fueled in large part by the growing prevalence of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogues (variations of fentanyl) imported from China, Mexico and other countries.
Last year, more than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, including more than 20,000 who overdosed on fentanyl-related substances, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To evade U.S. controls, foreign manufacturers of fentanyl create “structural variants” of fentanyl that are not currently listed under the Controlled Substances Act, the Justice Department said.
Carreno said the scheduling of fentanyl analogues “gives us the opportunity to get ahead of the rogue chemists out there to make new drugs by tweaking molecules.”
Once the classification takes effect, “anyone who possesses, imports, distributes, or manufactures any illicit fentanyl analogue will be subject to criminal prosecution in the same manner as for fentanyl and other controlled substances,” the Department of Justice said in a statement.