The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration wants to aid prosecutors in going after people who push illicit substances related to the powerful opioid fentanyl.
The DEA said this week it plans to classify drugs similar to fentanyl as illegal controlled substances. The agency said the move would allow prosecutors to charge traffickers of fake fentanyl.
Fentanyl and other versions of the drug were involved in nearly half of Kentucky’s overdose deaths last year and have become a growing problem across the country.
Acting DEA Administrator Robert Patterson said traffickers alter fentanyl’s chemicals to make similar drugs which aren’t explicitly illegal, making it more difficult for prosecutors to bring charges.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the DEA’s new classification would curb that.
“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 in a news release. “By scheduling all fentanyls, we empower our law enforcement officers and prosecutors to take swift and necessary action against those spreading these deadly poisons.”
The DEA has already ordered one such substance — Cyclopropyl fentanyl, — to be classified by Dec. 21.
In Kentucky, fentanyl abuse has increased dramatically.
According to Kentucky’s Overdose Fatality Reports, 424 Kentuckians died of a fentanyl-related overdose in 2015. The following year, Jefferson County was the most affected by fentanyl-related deaths with 623 people killed by fentanyl-related overdoses.
DEA spokesman Melvin Patterson said fentanyl use has grown since 2013, funneling from countries like China. Patterson said classifying fentanyl-like substances could decrease overdoses and save lives.
“It’s just a very potent substance … two milligrams is a lethal dose,” Patterson said. “It’s just not a substance that should be abused. You really are taking your life in your own hand — you’re putting this substance like this in your body.”
Opioids continue to rock the commonwealth and the country with the number of overdoses rising at historic rates and affecting communities. The DEA opened a new field division in Louisville to address the drug problem, enlisting 90 special agents and 130 task force officers.
The division would cover West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, states crippled by 5,306 overdose deaths from opioids alone last year.