The United States faces a worsening opioid epidemic that takes over 163 lives daily. Deaths from drug overdoses have spiked dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl are a leading cause.
As members of Congress search for a way to respond, they have relied on militarized, dehumanizing “solutions” that advocates fear will harm marginalized and migrant communities. We must reject policies that further entrench an overreliance on police or military force in response to every social problem.
As members of Congress search for a way to respond to the opioid epidemic, they have relied on militarized, dehumanizing “solutions” that advocates fear will harm marginalized and migrant communities.
On May 25, the HALT Fentanyl Act passed the House. This bill would permanently classify all fentanyl-related substances (FRS) as Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Schedule 1 drugs are defined as those with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. This classification conveys the strictest regulation and harshest criminal penalties.
Classifying all FRS as Schedule 1 drugs would result in harsh mandatory minimum sentences for fentanyl-related offenses. History has shown us that this is a harmful way to respond to an epidemic of addiction. The United States relied on policies like these during the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. Harsh enforcement measures and mandatory minimums did not stop the illicit production of drugs then, and they won’t now. These measures do nothing to support individuals suffering from opioid addiction. Based on past outcomes, they would instead increase racial sentencing disparities, strip judges of sentencing discretion, and fuel mass incarceration.
Categorizing fentanyl as a Schedule 1 drug would cause significant harm in the United States. Meanwhile, another congressional proposal to designate the drug as a chemical weapon would have devastating international consequences.
The Project Precursor Act would direct the President to renegotiate the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to include fentanyl as a chemical weapon. The CWC is a multilateral treaty with 193 state parties. It went into force in 1997. The agreement prohibits the development, production, and ownership of chemical weapons and directs parties to ensure that none are present within that country’s territory. Seeking to label fentanyl as a chemical weapon formally is the latest step toward using military force as a tool of drug policy.
This once-fringe idea is gaining traction in Congress. In January 2022, Reps. Dan Crenshaw (TX-2) and Michael Walz (FL-6) introduced a war authorization (H.J. Res. 18) targeting Mexican cartels considered responsible for trafficking fentanyl and related substances. In March, Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC) introduced a bill designating Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations (S. 1048). Both measures offer overly simplified recommendations for a tragic and pervasive issue. Concerningly, these policies could unwittingly implicate migrants who may have been forced to pay cartel smugglers during their journeys to the United States.
To support communities, we need evidence-based solutions rooted in public health approaches—not punitive policies that normalize a reliance on incarceration or militarization to address problems.
This is a dangerous shift, as pointed out in a civil society letter opposing the Project Precursor Act, which FCNL has signed. “Congress adopting this ‘chemical weapons’ rhetoric will only give further oxygen to growing calls for, and even congressional authorization of, U.S. military strikes in Mexico,” the letter states.
What’s more, designating fentanyl as a chemical weapon could open the door for this or a future administration to use military force in Mexico without congressional approval. There is a worrisome precedent for this—during the Trump administration, executive branch lawyers claimed that the president had the authority to order strikes against chemical weapon producers in Syria without authorization from Congress.
The opioid crisis has taken an enormous toll on the American public. To support communities, we need evidence-based solutions rooted in public health approaches—not punitive policies that normalize a reliance on incarceration or militarization to address problems.
Militarized strategies only heighten instability, exacerbate humanitarian crises, and drive forced migration. FCNL joins other civil society organizations in urging Congress to reject the HALT Act and the Project Precursor Act. We must push our representatives to support policies that are effective at treating substance abuse, not punishing addiction.