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Grassley Q&A: Afghan Drug Trade and Fentanyl

Q: Why is it important to strengthen enforcement of synthetic fentanyl?

A: Deaths and illnesses from COVID-19 have caused immeasurable pain and suffering among American families for more than a year. The pandemic is distressing our economy, supply chains and schools, causing continued anguish and uncertainty for U.S. households across the country. It’s impacting every facet of American life, including the deadly opioid crisis. Arguably, the pandemic has undermined the Trump administration’s successful efforts to combat the opioid crisis and curb overdose deaths, including in rural America. Opioid overdose deaths rose 30 percent in 2020, fueled largely by engineered substances that mimic fentanyl. According to data from the Iowa Department of Public Health, Iowa overdose deaths climbed 35 percent in 2020 over the previous year.

Fentanyl is an opioid that’s up to 100 times stronger than heroin. Under existing federal law, Fentanyl is a Schedule II drug. To evade detection and enforcement, drug trafficking organizations manipulate fentanyl into similar and dangerous analogues. These fentanyl analogues are more difficult to identify and control given the constantly changing nature of the drug. At a congressional hearing of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, I sounded the alarm that fentanyl analogues are driving up the death toll. Earlier this year, I led a bipartisan push for the Biden administration to continue the DEA’s scheduling authority over these deadly drugs. Similarly, I worked with other senators on efforts to permanently ban highly addictive fentanyl analogues. Congress temporarily extended DEA’s Schedule I controlled substance authority to include fentanyl analogues through Oct. 22, 2021. Keeping fentanyl-related substances included in this category empowers law enforcement to seize all iterations of these dangerous drugs. It would encompass the illicit efforts of drug traffickers who seek to evade enforcement by fiddling with new versions of synthetic fentanyl they smuggle across our borders. Criminal violations for Schedule I substances allow offenders to be penalized under longstanding sentencing guidelines, including minimum sentences for certain quantities of controlled substances. The Biden administration sent Congress a legislative proposal on scheduling these substances, but in its proposal, it bars the application of minimum sentencing ranges for fentanyl analogue traffickers and importers. This soft approach could lead to a higher overdose death toll in America. It’s a grave mistake for the Biden administration to soften enforcement of fentanyl-related substances.

 Q: What’s on the horizon with the drug trade in Afghanistan?

A: The Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan resulted in 13 dead U.S. service members and an untold number of Americans and Afghan allies left behind enemy lines. The U.S. military exit shirks the decades-long effort to shrink the drug trade that helped finance the Taliban. Make no mistake. Poppy farms and the drug trade anchor the Afghan economy and terrorist networks like meat and potatoes. Now, Afghanistan is poised to return as a safe haven for terrorists and the world’s biggest supplier of illicit opiates and heroin. The collapse of the Afghan army and economic instability serve as stepping stones for the drug trade to reemerge stronger than ever. Afghanistan supplies more than 80 percent of the world’s opium and heroin. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes says the opiate economy in Afghanistan reached $6.6 billion in 2017. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) included in its report this year how the Taliban gets 60 percent of its profits from illicit drug trade. A month before the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan, I called upon President Biden to step up with a comprehensive counternarcotics strategy. I’ve yet to receive a response. America’s national security and opioid crisis are on the line. Without a plan, the resurgence of the Taliban and its domination of the Afghanistan people will fuel poppy cultivation, foster illicit drug trafficking, replenish terrorists’ coffers and kill even more Americans with overdose death and increase addiction, including rural communities in America’s Heartland.

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