Nov. 9 (UPI) -- Anyone who possesses, imports, distributes or manufactures any fetanyl-related substance can be criminally prosecuted, the U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday.
The Drug Enforcement Administration issued an order to schedule all fentanyl-related substances on an emergency basis, classifying the powerful synthetic opioid at the same level as heroin.
The DEA said overseas chemical manufacturers in conjunction with illicit domestic distributors try to evade regulatory controls by using structural variants of fentanyl not listed under he Controlled Substances Act.
Prosecutors previously faced difficult evidentiary hurdles to convict traffickers, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the DEA's action will provide prosecutors with an important tool in combating the opioid epidemic.
"By scheduling all fentanyls, we empower our law enforcement officers and prosecutors to take swift and necessary action against those spreading these deadly poisons," Sessions said. "I also urge the many members of Congress who clearly share our concern and alarm over fentanyl's role in our opioid overdose epidemic to do their part by permanently scheduling these lethal substances."
The temporary scheduling will go into effect 30 days after the DEA publishes its notice of intent and will last up to two years, with possibility of a one-year extension under certain conditions.
"Today's action represents just one step in the ongoing fight to battle the opioid epidemic," DEA Acting Administrator Robert W. Patterson said. "DEA is committed to using all of its tools to aggressively fight and address the opioid crisis and growing fentanyl problem plaguing the United States."
The order combined established awareness campaigns and prescriber education plans with other aggressive protocols, increased funding for HIV/AIDS patients with addictions to narcotic pain medications and channeled funds into a "massive advertising campaign."
"President Trump has made it a cornerstone of his presidency to combat the deadly drug crisis in America, and today the Department of Justice is taking an important step toward halting the rising death toll caused by illicit fentanyls in the United States," Sessions said.