U.S. drug policy reform advocates condemned President Joe Biden's commitment to "accelerating the crackdown on fentanyl trafficking" as part of his administration's strategy for tackling the opioid crisis, a policy the White House announced in a preview of Tuesday night's State of the Union address.
Although the SOTU preview says the administration will be "expanding access to evidence-based prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and recovery," the document says Biden will "work with Congress to make permanent tough penalties on suppliers of fentanyl," fentanyl analogs, and fentanyl-related substances (FRS).
The outline states that Biden "looks forward to working with Congress on its comprehensive proposal to permanently schedule all illicitly produced FRS into Schedule I," the most severe Drug Enforcement Administration classification.
"The push to place all fentanyl-related substances in Schedule I is unfortunate and misguided. Schedule I is supposed to be for substances that we know to be harmful and not helpful."
"Traffickers of these deadly substances must face the penalties they deserve, no matter how they adjust their drugs," the preview asserts.
In response to the SOTU preview, Maritza Perez Medina, director of the office of federal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement that "we are glad to see President Biden continue to call for increased access to evidence-based treatment, harm reduction, and recovery services."
"But, his support for harsher penalties for fentanyl-related substances—which will result in broader application of mandatory minimum sentencing and disproportionately harm Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities—in the same breath is incredibly counterproductive and fails to recognize how we got to this place to begin with," she asserted. "Over 100,000 of our loved ones being lost to avoidable overdoses a year is not because of a lack of enforcement, it's a direct result of it."
Gregory Dudley, who chairs the chemistry department at West Virginia University, argued that "the push to place all fentanyl-related substances in Schedule I is unfortunate and misguided. Schedule I is supposed to be for substances that we know to be harmful and not helpful."
"We don't know which of these substances would be harmful or helpful, and how could we without testing them?" Dudley asked. "Some of these substances could be lifesaving opioid antagonists like naloxone, or better. This proposal prioritizes criminalization over healthcare."
Susan Ousterman, who lost her son Tyler to an accidental overdose in 2020 and subsequently founded the Vilomah Memorial Foundation, said that "it's incredibly disheartening to see the president co-opting the grief of mothers like me in an attempt to increase penalties, rather than prioritizing the health measures that are desperately needed to save lives."
"Increased penalties for people who use or sell drugs, including fentanyl-related substances, would not have kept my son alive or the countless children of other mothers I have met," Ousterman stressed. "In fact, it's policies such as these that created the increased stigma and fear that kept our children from accessing help, and it's what has led to the increasingly dangerous drug supply that resulted in their deaths."
"It's time for the president and other policymakers to prioritize the lives of all humans by embracing a health approach rather than engaging in politics that only perpetuate this disastrous war on drugs," she added. "As a person who understands the profound impact both substance use and child loss have on families, I expected more."
Biden was one of the architects of the 1980s escalation of the War on Drugs. He coined the term "drug czar" while advocating the establishment of the cabinet-level position and was a key supporter of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, legislation that accelerated U.S. mass incarceration.