WASHINGTON, D.C. — The House of Representatives on Thursday passed legislation to permanently classify fentanyl and similar synthetic opioids among the most dangerous drugs, as Republicans and several Northwest Democrats approved a bill backed by President Joe Biden.
The bill passed by a vote of 289-133, as 74 Democrats joined all but one House Republican to support it. Another 132 Democratic lawmakers voted no, voicing concerns among some on the left that the legislation could repeat the mistakes of the "war on drugs," increasing incarceration without stopping the group of drugs that now accounts for two-thirds of the nation's overdose deaths, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Spokane Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has led the push to pass the bill. It would permanently place all fentanyl-related substances into the highest category under the Controlled Substances Act, subjecting criminal offenses involving at least 100 grams of such drugs to a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.
"Illicit fentanyl is one of the greatest threats that we face right now as a nation," McMorris Rodgers said in an interview. "In Spokane, the numbers are really sobering."
Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can be prescribed legally, but in recent years it has proliferated on the illegal market, often mixed with heroin and other drugs — sometimes without the user's knowledge.
In March 2022, the DEA designated Spokane County as one of 11 fentanyl crisis spots in the United States after seizures of the drug increased by nearly 1,100%. Fentanyl is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49, according to an analysis by the Washington Post.
McMorris Rodgers said the bill wouldn't affect research or the legitimate medical use of fentanyl. Instead, it seeks to address the problem of illicit drug manufacturers making chemically similar drugs to evade federal laws.
A temporary order to classify fentanyl and related substances as "schedule I" has been in place since 2018 and is set to expire at the end of 2024. The schedule I category is reserved for drugs with no currently accepted medical use and high potential for abuse.
"What's happening is that they'll change one molecule of the fentanyl formula and then it's technically legal," she said. "That's how they're getting around our law and why this legislation is important."
Lawmakers in both parties agree fentanyl and similar drugs pose a grave threat, and in a "statement of administration policy" released Monday, the White House urged Congress to pass the bill. But some Democrats say the bill is the wrong way to address the problem.
Speaking on the House floor Thursday, Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said Democrats would support legislation to permanently classify fentanyl as a schedule I drug, "so long as it's carefully designed to avoid exacerbating inequities in our criminal justice system."
In a letter to congressional leaders Tuesday, a group of 158 public health and civil rights organizations called on lawmakers to oppose the bill, saying that it uses a flawed definition, imposes overly harsh sentences and doesn't provide a way to remove harmless substances from the schedule I category.
On Monday, Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee blocked several Democratic amendments, including one that would have required a government watchdog report on the bill's effects. In his remarks Thursday, Pallone called the bill "a partisan distraction from the hard, bipartisan work that actually has to be done to address a longstanding, intractable problem that faces our communities."
But in the end, dozens of House Democrats voted for the bill, including Washington Reps. Suzan DelBene of Medina, Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor, Rick Larsen of Everett, Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez of Skamania County, Kim Schrier of Sammamish and Marilyn Strickland of Tacoma.
Two other Democrats, Pramila Jayapal of Seattle and Adam Smith of Bellevue, voted no. Reps. Russ Fulcher and Mike Simpson, both Idaho Republicans, voted in favor.
The legislation could face a tougher path in the Democratic-majority Senate, even with the support of Biden and the DEA, which has identified the bill as its top legislative priority. McMorris Rodgers said she hasn't spoken with either of Washington's Democratic senators about the issue but said she believes the DEA's call for action should increase the urgency in the upper chamber.