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In May the Biden administration approved a temporary extension of an emergency policy that identifies fentanyl analogues as a scheduled drug. The extension, signed by the president on May 4, was described as a necessary step to protect public safety. Many prison reform groups, however, call the bill a thinly-veiled extension of the war on drugs.
Attention on stemming the flow of fentanyl into the country increased in recent years as the opioid epidemic took hold. Fentanyl analogues are essentially copies of the original drug with differing chemical components. While some analogues show no enhanced effect, others have proven to be more potent, addictive and deadly than Fentanyl itself.
Political leaders voice frustration with Biden administration over drug policy
The concern many in the justice reform community are voicing centers around the likelihood of increased incarceration for low-level offenses.
Senators like Cory Booker (D-NJ) have denounced the extension. In a scathing letter to the White House, Booker said that the extension “fails to provide our communities with the help and support needed to address the public health crisis.”
“Instead,” Booker continued, “it revives the erroneous policies of the War on Drugs.”
Black Americans far more likely to face prosecution for Fentanyl analogue charges, report shows
Booker’s claims aren’t centered in political differences, but rooted in research from Biden’s own Justice Department.
According to the US Sentencing Commission, Black Americans made up almost 60% of defendants prosecuted for Fentanyl analogues in 2019. Disparities also exist along education lines, with nearly 71% of individuals prosecuted having received a high school diploma or less.
This data backs up concerns from The Marshall Project that low-level offenders and people of color are likely to face the brunt of punishment as a result of this policy. In a report about the potential consequences of the extension, the group wrote that “as little as ten grams of drugs laced with Fentanyl analogues” will result in a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence.
The extension will end in October of 2021 unless Congress reauthorizes the bill and Biden approves it once again. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki recently stated that the administration has “legitimate concerns related to some components of it, including mandatory minimums.”
October’s extension vote will likely signify whether the nation is truly moving in the direction of meaningful drug policy reforms.