WASHINGTON, June 4 (Reuters) - Illicit chemical knock-offs of the extremely potent opioid fentanyl would be put permanently in the same legal class as heroin to boost prosecutions of traffickers and makers of the drugs, under a proposal to be unveiled on Tuesday by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The new classification is meant to help fight a proliferation of chemical look-alikes of fentanyl, known as analogues, that are fueling the U.S. opioid drug epidemic.
It comes more than a year after the start of an emergency ban, due to expire in February 2020, which helped the DEA to expedite investigations of new analogues without first having to chemically analyze and classify each one.
Fentanyl analogues resemble fentanyl and have similar physical effects. Chemists had been tweaking molecular structures to evade the DEA scheduling regime.
DEA Acting Chief Operations Officer Greg Cherundolo is set to go before a Senate committee on Tuesday to propose that Congress make the measure permanent so that cases against various analogues will not be undercut when the temporary ban lapses, a senior DEA official told Reuters ahead of the hearing.
In 2017, more than two-thirds of about 70,200 drug overdose deaths in America involved an opioid, such as fentanyl, government data shows.
Some of those deaths involved fentanyl prescribed by a doctor, but many involved illicit versions of the highly addictive synthetic painkiller, most of which is trafficked from China. Fentanyl is about 100 times more potent than morphine.
As prescribed by physicians, fentanyl is classified as a Schedule II drug. That means it is highly addictive, but has a medicinal purpose. Placing illicit fentanyl analogues in Schedule 1, along with heroin, would mean that they are addictive, have no medicinal purpose and are effectively banned.
The February 2018 emergency order classified all fentanyl analogues as Schedule 1 drugs. In 2018, the DEA identified 3,591 new compounds of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids - a 27% increase from 2017.
Whether Congress will make the temporary ban on illicit fentanyl analogues permanent remains to be seen. Republican Senator Ron Johnson has offered a draft bill to make the temporary scheduling permanent. (Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Bill Berkrot)