The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) will classify illicit versions of synthetic opioid fentanyl at the same level as heroin, as part of ongoing efforts to tackle the country’s opioid epidemic.
The DEA said that illicit fentanyl would become a Schedule 1 drug, alongside heroin, which classifies it as being addictive and having no medicinal purpose.
Legally prescribed fentanyl is currently classified by the DEA as a Schedule II drug, meaning it is highly addictive but has a medical purpose.
Any new alternative chemical versions of fentanyl will also be listed as Schedule 1 drugs. These drugs are chemically similar to fentanyl and have similar effects on the human body.
In a statement the DEA said the order meant that anyone who possesses, imports, distributes, or manufactures any illicit fentanyl analogue will be subject to criminal prosecution in the same manner as for fentanyl and other controlled substances.
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said: “By scheduling all fentanyls, we empower our law enforcement officers and prosecutors to take swift and necessary action against those spreading these deadly poisons.”
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids were responsible for more than 33,000 US deaths in 2015.
It is estimated that there are 142 opioid-related deaths in the US every day, which the US Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis compared with the 9/11 death toll happening every three weeks. The number of opioid overdoses has quadrupled since 1999.
Earlier this year, President of the United States, Donald Trump, declared the nation’s opioid crisis a public health emergency.