There is bipartisan agreement in Congress that the United States is enduring a fentanyl crisis.
But while both sides agree on that conclusion, Democrats and Republicans are split on how to best address the issue.
One California congressman is suggesting what might seem to be a simple solution, but could have bigger impacts: permanently classifying fentanyl-related substances as a Schedule I narcotic in order to create programs to study the drug.
“That would give our law enforcement agencies some better tools to go after the people that are spreading this poison in our communities, but also make the rules for doing research on fentanyl a little bit more clear," said Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Calif. "Because right now, sometimes those rules hamper our ability to come up with with ways of detecting fentanyl, because ... if there aren't exceptions for being able to do that research, then we'll never be able to have better detection technology."
Fentanyl-related substances are currently classified as Schedule I until the end of 2024.
The bill, known as the HALT Fentanyl Act, was introduced by Rep. H. Morgan Griffith, R-Va.; Obernolte is a sponsor.
The fight, Obernolte says, is personal, telling Spectrum News that starting “several years ago,” there was an uptick in “fentanyl-related poisoning in my district," which he called "unusual."
"I represent a very rural section of California, one of the largest districts in the country," he said. "It's not a problem that we are accustomed to experiencing.”
Obernolte’s district, which is anchored in San Bernardino County, has seen fentanyl-related deaths skyrocket in recent years, from 30 in 2018 to more than 300 in 2021, the latest year for which numbers are available.
“I've been in elected office [for] 18 years now," he said. "My worst day in elected office was last fall, when I had to console a constituent of mine who lost both her sons in the same day to fentanyl poisoning. And as a parent of two sons myself, that hit me like a sledgehammer. I can't imagine what that feels like.”
Earlier this month, Attorney General Merrick Garland told the Senate Judiciary Committee that fentanyl is “a huge epidemic problem,” adding that the issue was “created by intentional acts by the cartels."
"We are doing everything we can within our resources to fight that," he added.
According to Garland, the Drug Enforcement Administration and partner organizations seized enough fentanyl-laced pills last year to kill every living American.
The problem lies in part that fentanyl is so difficult to identify.
“DEA agents have been doing this job for a long time - we seize those drugs, those pills, we cannot tell the difference. a DEA agent cannot tell the difference. Certainly anyone in the public cannot tell the difference,” said Jared Forget, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA's Washington Division.
Some groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union, oppose the bill, saying it would criminalize chemically similar substances that may have therapeutic value. In a letter to Congress, dozens of organizations urged lawmakers not to pass the bill.
But until lawmakers agree on how to address the crisis, Obernolte is encouraging parents to talk to their kids about fentanyl.
“Sometimes it can be a difficult discussion because it acknowledges the potential for that your kids might be out there buying what they think is oxy,” said Obernolte.
“But if we don't talk to our kids about this, then we can't pass on that knowledge that could save their lives," he added.
Earlier this month, the bill was passed through committee. The next step is a full House vote before it will be sent to the Senate for consideration.