President Biden on Tuesday called for stepped-up enforcement and stiff penalties to tackle the fentanyl crisis that is killing tens of thousands of Americans per year, vowing to root the drug out of commercial parcels entering the U.S.
“Fentanyl is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year. So let’s launch a major surge to stop fentanyl production and the sale and trafficking, with more drug detection machines to inspect cargo and stop pills and powder at the border — working with couriers like Fed Ex to inspect more packages for drugs,” Mr. Biden said in his State of the Union address.
He called for “strong penalties to crack down on fentanyl trafficking.”
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is often made in Mexico with precursor chemicals from China or India. The drug is trafficked through ports of entry and across the southern border into U.S. communities.
Republicans say Mr. Biden’s border policies are fueling the problem. Some lawmakers on the Republican side shouted “border” and told Mr. Biden the fentanyl problem is his fault when he raised the topic.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise brought Jefferson Parish Coroner Gerald “Gerry” Cvitanovich to the Capitol as his guest for the speech.
“Fentanyl is the leading cause of unnatural deaths in Jefferson Parish, taking roughly 500 lives in 2021 and 2022,” Mr. Scalise said. “Eleven years ago, there were only two fentanyl deaths in Jefferson Parish. Every day in America, more than 150 people are dying from synthetic opioid poisoning due to President Biden’s open southern border.”
Mr. Biden’s reference to stiffer penalties comes as he urges Congress to permanently place fentanyl-related substances on the Schedule I list of drugs that have no medical purpose and pose a high risk of addiction. The administration’s temporary scheduling authority will expire in December 2024.
However, efforts to permanently schedule fentanyl substances have run into roadblocks in Congress.
Top Republicans said their main bill to permanently schedule fentanyl-related substances — the HALT Fentanyl Act — has exemptions for researchers who handle the drug, so it should be an easy sell for all lawmakers.
Yet the administration has said that fentanyl-related substances should be exempted from quantity-based mandatory minimum criminal penalties. Mandatory minimum terms would still apply to cases where death or serious bodily injury can be directly linked to the drugs, according to the White House plan.
The GOP warns that offers too many carveouts for traffickers, and Mr. Biden is also getting flack from his left. Liberal groups say tougher penalties are not the answer and could sweep up people with harmless substances or even drugs that turn out to be beneficial.
“By urging Congress to permanently schedule all fentanyl-related substances on Schedule I without fully testing and researching them, the president is not only creating the conditions for a riskier drug market and backtracking on his commitments to criminal justice reform, but he is also preventing us from finding therapeutic treatments to address the overdose epidemic,” said Maritza Perez Medina, director of the office of federal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Mr. Biden did not lean into the debate during his speech, something that GOP lawmakers will be eager to point out.
“The Biden administration has refused House Republicans’ efforts to keep these deadly substances out of our communities,” Energy and Commerce Committee Chairwoman Cathy Rodgers, Washington Republican, said. “We cannot let this scourge of poison continue to proliferate in America.”
Overdose deaths involving a synthetic opioid have soared from nearly 10,000 in 2015 and 20,000 in 2016 — the period when fentanyl started to infiltrate the U.S. drug supply — to 56,000 in 2020 and over 70,000 in 2021, according to the most recent federal figures available based on death certificates.
U.S. overdose deaths accelerated during the COVID-19 years, as drug users were cut off from support networks and Washington focused much of its attention on the coronavirus as its most pressing health crisis.
About 110,000 people died of overdoses from any drug in the 12 months ending in March before the rate plateaued and eased slightly over the next several months. Roughly 107,000 people died of drug overdoses in the 12 months that ended in August, according to the most recent data.
“We have now seen five straight months — five straight months — where overdose numbers have decreased,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said Tuesday before the speech. “So it is a hopeful sign, but we can’t slow down our efforts to beat this.”
Mr. Biden is touting record seizures of counterfeit pills as a sign that agents are intercepting drugs. Yet the Drug Enforcement Administration recently told Congress that the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels in Mexico remain the greatest criminal drug threat the U.S. has ever faced.
Some congressional lawmakers also want Mr. Biden to elevate Dr. Gupta’s position to the Cabinet level. It was downgraded from the Cabinet at the start of President Barack Obama’s first term.
The bicameral U.S. Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking last year called for reinstating it.
“Since the director’s position was downgraded in 2009, members of the House and Senate have repeatedly called for the demotion’s reversal, and advocacy groups, trade associations, substance use disorder treatment facilities, and former ONDCP leadership all support its reinstatement,” Rep. David Trone, Maryland Democrat, and Sen. Ed Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, wrote in a Feb. 1 letter signed by members of both parties.