The House on Thursday passed legislation that would permanently classify fentanyl related substances as Schedule I drugs that are subject to the toughest federal prison terms and penalties, over the objection of most Democrats.
Lawmakers approved the Halt All Lethal Trafficking of Fentanyl Act in an 289-133 vote that saw 132 Democrats oppose the bill even though the White House signaled support for it. In the final vote, 74 Democrats supported the bill and only one Republican voted against it.
Supporters of the bill have argued that there are thousands of fentanyl analogues that cannot be analyzed quickly enough to understand which are harmful and which are not, which is why all fentanyl related substances need to be classified in Schedule I. FRS has been temporarily classified that way on an emergency basis since 2018, and the House bill would make that permanent.
“The HALT Fentanyl Act would permanently schedule all fentanyl-related substances (FRS) not otherwise scheduled into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act as a class and expedite research into fentanyl-related substances, which the Administration has long supported,” the White House said this week.
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But during floor debate on the bill, several Democrats argued against the bill by saying the penalties it imposes for producing and selling fentanyl analogues would fall unfairly on minorities. Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove, D-Calif., said the bill is a repeat of the “war on drugs” from the 1980s that will result in jail time for “Black and Brown” people.
“Did we learn nothing from the war on drugs? I guess not,” she said.
“Back then we enacted ineffective and punitive laws that only worked to expand mass incarceration, mostly of Black and Brown folks,” she said. “This legislation will enact ineffective and punitive drug laws that only work to expand mass incarceration.”
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said Democrats support permanently classifying FRS on Schedule I, but only if the bill is “carefully designed to avoid exacerbating inequities in our criminal justice system.”
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He and other Democrats have argued for the last few months that the bill should have included language that only allowed for mandatory minimum sentences if the fentanyl analogue in question resulted in “serious bodily injury or death.”
Pallone added that the Biden administration also supports policies aimed at making sure tougher drug sentencing rules don’t “exacerbate existing inequities,” and helping people cope with drug addiction.
“We simply cannot incarcerate our way out of a public health crisis,” he said. “The HALT Fentanyl Act does not provide any resources for research, prevention, treatment, recovery, or harm reduction.”
“We need to be tough on inequality, but for true, systemic change, we have to be willing to consider different roads,” added Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. “We have to be willing to consider community-based, trauma-informed, and harm-reducing policies. We must resist the urge to hearken back to tough-on-crime rhetoric.”
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Republicans dismissed these worries and said tough penalties against FRS need to be made permanent because tens of thousands of Americans are dying every year due to fentanyl or FRS overdoses. Report language on the bill said more than 71,000 Americans died this way in 2021.
“If you are selling fentanyl to our kids, you deserve to be incarcerated,” Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., said in response to Democrats’ arguments. “We don’t apologize for that.”
“Fentanyl is the top cause of death for Americans 18 to 49 years old,” Guthrie added. “In my home State of Kentucky, illicit fentanyl overdoses represented 70 percent of all overdoses in 2020 and 2021.”
“The fentanyl crisis is one of the foremost problems that the American public faces and has been made worse by the crisis at our southern border,” he said. “Illicit fentanyl is turning virtually every community into a border community, with these poisons flooding streets across America and taking innocent lives, including the lives of our kids.”
House passage sends the bill to the Senate, where it is likely to stall despite White House support given broad opposition in the House among Democrats.