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Biden Fentanyl Message Draws Criticism From Two Sides

President Biden’s calls in his State of the Union speech for strong criminal penalties in response to soaring deaths linked to the potent opioid fentanyl are being rebuked by harm reduction advocates, who say that approach could make the problem worse, as some in Congress jeered the comments and blamed the Democrat’s border policies for deepening the crisis, the Associated Press reports. The reactions showed how preventing drug deaths touches on deep political, practical and philosophical differences even in addressing an unrelenting U.S. overdose crisis connected to more than 100,000 deaths a year. After introducing a New Hampshire father whose 20-year-old daughter died eight years ago from a fentanyl overdose, Biden laid out a grim statistic: “Fentanyl is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year.” A few lawmakers called out “It’s the border.” The voice of one, Rep. Andy Ogles (R-TN), rang out clearly: “It’s your fault!”

While harm reduction advocates support other aspects of Biden’s framework, their view is that handling the crisis largely as a law enforcement issue makes it worse, and that “strong penalties” could be linked to permanently listing fentanyl-related drugs in the highest tier of controlled substances. All fentanyl-related drugs are listed on that tier through 2024. It’s up to Congress to decide whether to make it permanent. “When you criminalize things, you create stigma around substances,” said Maritza Perez Medina of the Drug Policy Alliance. “If people know they’re going to get in trouble for using substances, they’re going to be reluctant to call for help.” Harry Cullen, an organizer with the harm reduction advocacy group P.A.I.N., said efforts to control the fentanyl supply have led the emergence of other, even more dangerous substances in the drug supply, such as Xylazine, which is used as a veterinarian sedative, and nitazenes, another class of opioids.


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