Biden’s State of the Union Comments on Fentanyl-Related Substances Run Counter to Commitments on Public Health and Criminal Justice Reform

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In response to President Biden’s pre-released State of the Union outline detailing increased crack downs on fentanyl-related substances, Maritza Perez Medina, Director of the Office of Federal Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, released the following statement:

“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. 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.

“The reason fentanyl-related substances have overtaken our drug supply at this point is because of the drug trade responding to harsh crack downs and increased seizures of heroin and prescription opioids. And now that we are seeing harsher policies towards fentanyl, there are new and even more potent drugs, such as Xylazine and nitazenes popping up and beginning to overtake some markets. Make no mistake, this pattern will continue and sadly, more lives will be lost as long as we continue down this path.

“And by urging Congress to permanently schedule all fentanyl-related substances on Schedule I without fully testing and researching them, the president is not only creating the conditions for a riskier drug market and backtracking on his commitments to criminal justice reform, but he is also preventing us from finding therapeutic treatments to address the overdose epidemic. From the few fentanyl-related substances that the government has tested, at least one has already shown potential to reverse overdoses. Instead of more punitive policies, it’s time we embrace science and public health measures, such as Senator Booker’s TEST Act, which would require the federal government to begin testing and researching these substances, report their findings, and remove any from the drug schedules that are found to be harmless.

Bottom line, it’s impossible to save lives if we don’t even know what’s in the drug supply or have the knowledge and tools to reverse it.”

Additionally, Susan Ousterman, founder of Vilomah Memorial Foundation, who lost her son to an accidental overdose in 2020, and Dr. Gregory Dudley, Professor of Chemistry and Department Chair at West Virginia University, provided the below remarks:

“I lost my son Tyler to an accidental overdose in 2020, and 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,” said Ousterman. “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. 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. As a person who understands the profound impact both substance use and child loss have on families, I expected more.”

“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,” said Dr. Dudley. “We don’t know which of these substances would be harmful or helpful, and how could we without testing them? Some of these substances could be lifesaving opioid antagonists like naloxone, or better. This proposal prioritizes criminalization over health care.”

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