A congressional committee has approved a bill that aims to ramp up criminalization for fentanyl-related substances, while also streamlining research into Schedule I drugs like marijuana and certain psychedelics.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), passed the House Energy & Commerce Committee with amendments on Thursday.
An amendment in the nature of a substitute was adopted by the panel, striking original provisions of the bill and replacing them with updated language that lays out penalties for fentanyl-related offenses and revised requirements for researchers interested in studying any Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
Advocates who oppose the war on drugs are generally opposed to the legislation given that its main thrust is permanently placing fentanyl and its analogues in the most strict schedule and enhancing penalties for activity related to the opioid substances.
BREAKING The House Energy & Commerce Committee passed the HALT Act out of committee, ramping up mandatory minimums for fentanyl-related substances. But to save lives, Congress must center a public health approach, not more criminalization. https://t.co/r9sQeAWYcM pic.twitter.com/JGAJYqXnyy
— Drug Policy Alliance (@DrugPolicyOrg) March 24, 2023
However, other provisions of the bill that aim to expedite registrations for studies into Schedule I drugs and allow for limited manufacturing by researchers could address some concerns surrounding how the strict classification of marijuana, psychedelics and other substances has impeded science.
Congress should instead pass legislation like the STOP Fentanyl Act, which proposes increased access to harm reduction services and substance use disorder treatment, and the TEST Act, which provides funding for FRS research and better strategies to address the opioid epidemic.
— Due Process Institute (@iDueProcess) March 23, 2023
“Scheduling fentanyl-related substances should not be a political issue,” Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH) said at the committee markup last week. “Protecting and ensuring the safety of our communities is the reason we are all here in Congress, and working to eradicate the scourge of fentanyl in order to save lives should be one of our top priorities.”
He acknowledged concerns about the potential consequences of the legislation on research objectives, saying that it “specifically includes a carve-out that enables researchers to continue studying Schedule I substances for the purposes of identifying potential medical benefits.”
Some of the research provisions of the bill are similar to those contained in a marijuana-focused measure that President Joe Biden signed into law last year, giving the U.S. attorney general 60 days to either approve a given application or request supplemental information from a prospective research applicant. It also creates a more efficient pathway for researchers who request larger quantities of cannabis.
Under Griffith’s bill that’s now advancing in the House, a research applicant who is actively registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to study Schedule I and II drugs would need to have their request assessed within 30 days of sending a notice to the Justice Department.
A non-registered applicant would have to have their submission considered within 45 days of sending the notice.
The measure also states that research that’s being conducted or funded by federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would qualify for expedited processing.
Further, the amended bill says that duplicative registrations would no longer be required for all researchers involved in an approved study of a Schedule I substance if they’re all part of the same research institution.
The legislation goes on to say that “a person who is registered to perform research on a controlled substance may perform manufacturing activities with small quantities of that substance…without being required to obtain a manufacturing registration, if such activities are performed for the purpose of the research and if the activities and the quantities of the substance involved in those activities.”
When it comes to the main fentanyl crackdown thrust of the legislation, reform advocates are opposed
“We all want to turn the tide on the overdose crisis, which has already claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of our friends, family members and neighbors,” Maritza Perez Medina, director of the Office of Federal Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a press release. “But increasing drug war criminalization is a disproven, failed strategy.”
“By voting in favor of a version of the HALT Fentanyl Act that doubles down on mandatory minimums, proponents of permanent class-wide scheduling are showing their true colors,” she said. “The goal is not to address the overdose crisis and keep people alive. The goal is to grandstand using tough-on-crime rhetoric of the past to control communities and provide a false sense of safety. This approach is not only counterproductive to addressing the issue of overdose, but it will continue to disproportionately impact Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities because of targeted enforcement and oversurveillance.”
The Halt All Lethal Trafficking of (HALT) Fentanyl Act was introduced last Congress as well, but it did not advance at the committee level.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) posted a request for information (RFI) last year, seeking input on barriers to cannabis research specifically to help “strengthen the scientific evidence” of the plant’s therapeutic potential.
Meanwhile, federal agencies included HHS and DEA are working to complete an administrative review into marijuana scheduling that Biden directed late last year.
HHS and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have stressed that while its scientific assessment is binding, DEA makes the final call as far as possible scheduling decisions are concerned.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said last week that he’s aware that there’s significant public interest in the timeline for the administrative review of marijuana scheduling—but there are “a few hoops we need to jump through” before completing that assessment.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra took to Twitter on Wednesday to share a media clip of his interview about cannabis with KDKA-TV that aired earlier in the week, assuring followers, “I see the comments and I know a lot of you are asking about the status of marijuana.”
“I hear you, and just know that we are trying to work quickly but still have a few hoops we need to jump through,” he said. “As always, the science will guide this decision.”
Asked in the interview whether HHS would make its decision by April 20, Becerra laughed and said simply, “I know we’re going to try to move quickly.”
“It’s got to go through a number of hoops and, again, safety and efficacy are what will drive this determination, so stay tuned,” the secretary, who has been known to play into the symbolism of 420 on Twitter, said.