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Family hold a rally to call for justice for Fredreca Ford, 29, an inmate at the Franklin County Correction Center on Jackson Pike in Columbus, Ohio, who was found unconscious in her cell on June 26, 2021, and later died that day.

Family hold a rally to call for justice for Fredreca Ford, 29, an inmate at the Franklin County Correction Center on Jackson Pike in Columbus, Ohio, who was found unconscious in her cell on June 26, 2021, and later died that day. It is suspected that Ford overdosed on fentanyl. (Photo: Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Groups Say Congress Should Reject Biden's Harmful Sentencing Proposal on Fentanyl-Related Drugs

"The facts don't support the argument that a harsh law enforcement approach, such as permanent classwide scheduling of fentanyl-related substances, will curb drug distribution, sale, and use."

Andrea Germanos

A group of civil rights advocates on Thursday urged members of Congress to reject a Biden administration proposal to permanently reclassify fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I drugs, calling the approach toward the synthetic opioids a dangerous continuation of the so-called war on drugs that will do little to quell what is a public health issue.

"If Congress accepts President Biden's misguided recommendations, it will undermine the movement for criminal justice reform."

"Congress must chart a new course to save lives," said Maritza Perez, director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement noting the record-high number of drug overdose deaths, which have been driven in part by fentanyl.

"The only way forward," she said, "is moving health-centered legislation that can provide lifesaving harm reduction services and evidence-based treatment for people who use drugs. Anything less is not a solution—it's a cop-out for Congress." 

The renewed call from Perez and groups including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights came as the House Energy and Commerce Committee's health panel held a hearing about the proposal the administration rolled out in September.

Under the interagency plan, a Trump-era policy would continue by permanently placing fentanyl-related substances, or fentanyl analogues, into Schedule I—a designation that currently covers substances including ecstasy and heroin, is aimed at drugs with "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," and can lead to stiffer penalties.

Drug reform advocates say that approach, in place since 2018, has been an abject failure, worsening racial disparities in the criminal justice system while failing to prevent overdoses or a stem the opioid epidemic.

In a joint statement, the groups noted that at Thursday's House hearing, speakers included representatives from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of Justice, Food and Drug Administration, and National Institutes of Health—but no witness from a drug reform group.

Rather than craft new legislation or pass proposed legislation to enact the administration's plan, the group said that a "compassionate" and "public health-centered approach" must be the way forward.

"If Congress accepts President [Joe] Biden's misguided recommendations, it will undermine the movement for criminal justice reform," Aamra Ahmad, senior legislative counsel with the ACLU's National Political Advocacy Department, said in a statement. "Each and every member of Congress has a decision to make: Continue to lock up Black and brown people and hope overdoses magically stop, or give people the resources and support to lead healthy, dignified lives.”

Marta Nelson, director of government strategy at the Vera Institute of Justice, concurs.

"The facts don't support the argument that a harsh law enforcement approach, such as permanent classwide scheduling of fentanyl-related substances, will curb drug distribution, sale, and use," said Nelson, noting that "overdose deaths have sadly skyrocketed" since 2018. 

"Congress and the administration should instead center an evidence-based public health approach to saving lives now lost to overdose," she said, "and futures lost to long incarcerative sentences dictated by classwide scheduling."


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