DEA Tweet Highlights a Struggle Within the Drug Policy Community

June 7th 2016

Alex Mierjeski

Ever since news broke that Prince died of an overdose of the potent opioid painkiller fentanyl, a national panic has kicked up around the drug, which, in some forms, is thought to be 50 times more potent than pure heroin.


On Tuesday morning, we got a reminder from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration:

The occasion was a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing set up to mull over solutions to synthetic drug-related deaths. But for some, the sentiment in the tweet was eerily similar to the scare-tactic rhetoric that characterized the drug prevention policies of the 1980s — most of which are regarded as failures.

Prince's death highlighted the public health crisis that has emerged as opioid drug addiction and overdoses — including everything from Vicodin to heroin — have soared in recent years. But it's also revealed the fragmented response from health and law enforcement officials as stronger drugs, meant to satisfy higher tolerances, become more popular.

Fentanyl — a painkiller introduced in the late 1960s but commonly prescribed today to cancer patients suffering moderate-to-severe pain — has been one of those substances. But some responses to fentanyl's rise have drug policy reform advocates worried about a return to failed policies.

"Nobody disputes the fact that fentanyl is dangerous, nobody disputes that fentanyl is a challenge and has been linked to increases in overdoses," Michael Collins, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told ATTN:. "But more enforcement and tougher sentences is a failed approach."


Collins pointed to one state lawmaker, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), as someone pushing for wrong-headed policy reforms in response to fentanyl. Ayotte's amendments to the federal defense spending bill, for example, would impose mandatory five-year minimum sentences for anyone caught with half a gram of fentanyl, NPR reported. The amendment would lower the amount from 10 grams to a half gram to receive the above minimum sentence.

"The net impact of that is going to be low-level, nonviolent individuals, even drug users themselves being wrapped up in the criminal justice system and receiving harsh sentences," Collins said.

"It's a complete step in the wrong direction," he added.


Reforms to ramp up sentences go against recent bipartisan efforts to roll back the harsh sentences and mandatory minimums of previous decades that gave way to the worst aspects of mass incarceration.

But lawmakers' overall concerns about the drug are understandable, given the relative danger of fentanyl even at low doses.

"You're talking about a substance that is killing thousands of people on a regular basis," Russ Baer, a DEA public affairs coordinator, told ATTN:. "It's not an overreaction or a public hysteria; it's a public health crisis."

It's just a question of how to address that crisis, experts say. Lawmakers pushing for harsher penalties acknowledge that they can't "arrest our way out of this problem," as a spokesperson for Sen. Ayotte told NPR. But it's unclear what a comprehensive response will look like.

"The disagreement is on how to deal with it — do you take a harm reduction approach, a public health approach, or do you take a law-enforcement only incarceration approach," Collins said.