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Lawmakers Reintroduce Bipartisan Framework to Curb Spread of Rapidly Evolving Synthetic Drugs

WASHINGTON – As overdose deaths surge, fueled by synthetic opioids, lawmakers from both houses of Congress today reintroduced a framework to fight the rapid spread of deadly synthetic drugs, which can quickly be re-engineered to circumvent federal laws designed to outlaw them. The Stop Importation and Manufacturing of Synthetic Analogues (SIMSA) Act would allow for the temporary regulation of substances substantially similar to controlled drugs while more time-consuming testing, research and analysis can be performed. The proposal is designed to help law enforcement more rapidly respond to the fast-paced modification of synthetic drugs such as analogues to fentanyl, which have contributed to a near-30 percent spike in overdose deaths last year alone as the nation’s opioid epidemic continues. The legislation was introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), respective current and former vice-chairs of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. It’s cosponsored by Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.). Identical legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives by Representatives John Katko (R-N.Y.) and Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.).


“Criminals pushing illicit drugs are able to skirt existing laws by slightly changing the chemical makeup of a substance that has already been outlawed or regulated and flood the market before the law can catch up. It’s created a deadly game of ‘whack-a-mole’ as law enforcement struggles to keep pace under the current drug scheduling regime. Meanwhile, overdose deaths continue to skyrocket. It’s time for Congress to get serious about cracking down on this poison. Our bill provides the needed flexibility to stem the flow of deadly synthetics,” Grassley said.


“Lethal drugs are continuing to pour across our borders and into our communities, fueling the deadly opioid epidemic and endangering the livelihoods of folks across Iowa and the nation. We must do more to save lives before it’s too late, which is why I’m working across the aisle to give law enforcement the ability to ban dangerous substances and curb the influx of deadly synthetic drugs,” Ernst said.


“Fentanyl analogues can be just as deadly as fentanyl itself, yet these analogues are specifically formulated to evade bans, making it harder for law enforcement to stop the flow of these drugs into our communities. As New Hampshire and states across the country continue to grapple with the substance use disorder epidemic, it is more important than ever that Congress move to pass our bipartisan bill to help law enforcement crack down on these dangerous opioids and save lives,” Hassan said.


“Fueled by the proliferation of synthetic drugs like fentanyl, newly released data from the CDC found that drug-overdose related deaths surged by nearly 30% in 2020. Unfortunately, communities like mine in Central New York are all too familiar with the devastation caused by heroin and deadly synthetic drugs. That’s why, in addition to expanding substance use disorder treatment options, we need to ensure law enforcement is fully equipped to stop the inflow of these toxic drugs. With this bipartisan, bicameral legislation, law enforcement will be able to expeditiously schedule new synthetic drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, so that we can crack down on international drug traffickers and prevent these dangerous drugs from reaching our communities,” Katko said.


“In 2020, fatal drug overdoses jumped 34 percent in Nassau County in my district on Long Island. Sadly, this is happening all across the country. And it is fueled in large part by the ongoing spread of synthetic opioids, as illicit drug makers and importers continue to circumvent current law to bring these drugs into our communities. That’s why I’m proud to join my colleagues in the House and Senate to introduce this bipartisan legislation, which will help law enforcement stop drug traffickers and combat the spread of deadly synthetic opioids,” Rice said.


Existing laws prohibits the unauthorized use of certain specific controlled substances. However, illicit drug makers and importers are circumventing those laws by altering a single atom or molecule of a controlled drug to create a new, yet significantly similar substance, which has not yet been outlawed. This allows the illicit industry to make, market and move substances – often originally imported from China or Mexico – that are intended to have the same effect as controlled drugs outside the reach of existing law. Under the current drug scheduling system, uncontrolled substances must first be subjected to a time-consuming analysis before being permanently regulated or outlawed. 


The legislation allows substances to be temporarily or permanently added to a new category of controlled substances, known as Schedule A, if their chemical structure is substantially similar to an existing controlled substance and they are expected to have the same or greater effect on the human body. This will allow for a more rapid control of drugs designed to be used in the same illicit manner as already-regulated or outlawed drugs. The legislation applies existing criminal penalties for manufacturers, importers and exporters of Schedule A substances, without establishing any new mandatory minimum prison sentences. The bill also includes provisions to ensure that legitimate research on substances placed on Schedule A can still be undertaken.


The legislation is supported by the National Association of Police Organizations, the National District Attorneys Association, Drug Free America Foundation, Save Our Society From Drugs, The Fraternal Order of Police, National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys and the Major Cities Chiefs Association.


Grassley has been a leader in efforts to curb the importation and spread of deadly synthetic drugs. Most recently, he introduced legislation to extend a Drug Enforcement Administration authority aimed at preventing the spread of fentanyl analogues, and called on the Senate and Biden administration to develop a long-term solution on fentanyl knockoffs. He’s also requested updates on the administration’s plan to combat deadly analogues and pushed for them to be a central focus in the administration’s crime and drug strategy.


Stop the Importation and Manufacturing of Synthetic Analogues (SIMSA) Act