Fentanyl, a prescription painkiller that is among the most popular and yet deadliest synthetic opioids sold on the illicit market, has been targeted by new legislation introduced Tuesday by Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, R-8, Middletown.
Co-sponsored by Massachusetts Rep. Niki Tsongas, a Democrat, the International Narcotics Trafficking Emergency Response by Detecting Incoming Contraband with Technology (INTERDICT) Act will provide more funding and equipment to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
"Fentanyl is a manufactured opioid which — especially in its illicit versions — has contributed to tens of thousands of deaths," Fitzpatrick remarked Tuesday on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. "Especially concerning is that fact that this synthetic poison can be ordered online and delivered via mail or express consignment couriers from places like China, and — because of its high potency in small amounts — Fentanyl is extremely difficult for authorities to detect."
The Drug Enforcement Administration lists fentanyl as a schedule II synthetic opioid that is used commercially as an analgesic and anesthetic. According to the DEA, it is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin, making it harder to detect since it can be distributed in smaller amounts.
"Illicit fentanyl, likely manufactured in Mexico or China and then smuggled into the United States, is responsible for the current overdose epidemic," the report says. "It is usually mixed into heroin products, or pressed into counterfeit prescription pills, often without the users' awareness, which leads to overdose incidents."
Fitzpatrick's INTERDICT Act, a companion bill to similar legislation introduced by Sen. Joe Markley, a Republican from Connecticut, authorizes $15 million appropriated to Customs for more screening equipment and personnel.
It would provide additional portable chemical screening devices at ports of entry and mail and express consignment facilities, and additional fixed chemical screening devices in the agency's laboratories. The bill also makes available more resources and personnel, such as scientists, to interpret test results from the field.
"Our nation's drug epidemic is a complicated issue and our response must be multi-faceted," Fitzpatrick said in a statement. "That means disrupting the flow of drug while also increasing the accessibility and affordability for prevention, education, treatment, and recovery of this disease."
A July 2016 report from the DEA's Philadelphia field office lists fentanyl as the second-most-common drug present in Pennsylvania's 3,383 overdose deaths in 2015. It appeared in 51 percent of toxicology reports, behind heroin's 55 percent. The versatile opioid appeared in 36 percent of overdose deaths that also included heroin, and it showed up in 26 percent of cocaine-related deaths, according to the report.
In Bucks County, 26.5 percent of the 117 overdose deaths in 2015 involved fentanyl. For Montgomery County, fentanyl was present in 21.97 percent of the 136 overdose deaths, data show.
"When misused or abused, fentanyl is much deadlier than heroin," Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub said in a statement provided by Fitzpatrick's office. "We must take an all-out approach in stemming the tide of illegal drugs available for abuse. Law enforcement will continue to play a critical role in this battle against the drug scourge and the criminals who peddle this poison."
Fitzpatrick's congressional district includes all of Bucks County and part of Montgomery County.