New York budget moves forward with ban of fentanyl analogs to curb opioid overdoses

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Fentanyl analogs will be added to the list of controlled substances in the New York state 2021 budget, giving law enforcement authority to prosecute makers, sellers and users of the drugs in an effort to combat fentanyl-opioid related deaths.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid prescribed to treat severe pain. When illegally manufactured, fentanyl can take the form of fentanyl analogs, which are chemically-related fentanyl drugs that mimic its effects.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed this legislation in his Executive 2021 Budget in January, and it has since successfully made its way through the budget passing last week, amid the state’s focus on COVID-19 efforts.

“This is not the budget we had hoped to pass at the beginning of Session, or even the budget we had envisioned just a month ago,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers.

The budget lists 13 fentanyl analogs to become Schedule I controlled substances in New York.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ranks drugs depending on the medical use and dependency-abuse potential. Schedule I substances have no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse, such as heroin.

Certain fentanyl analogs are considered controlled substances by the DEA, but were not illegal in New York. 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Drug users are often unaware when fentanyl analogs are laced with more common opioids such as, heroin, oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine, which can result in lethal overdose.

New York faces a grave problem with overdose deaths specifically when it comes to opioid abuse. The most recent data from the New York Department of Health showed 2,170 opioid-related deaths in 2017, but Cuomo reported the first decrease in these numbers in a decade to 1,824 opioid-related deaths in 2018.

Prior to moving forward with the fentanyl analogs ban, Cuomo reconvened a New York State Heroin and Opioid Task Force in 2019, co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, to work towards overdose and recovery programs with the Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS).

Adding fentanyl analogs to the list of controlled substances allows law enforcement the authority to prosecute the manufacturing, sale and distribution of these drugs.

Kassandra Frederique, the managing director at Drug Policy Alliance, views this legislation as a setback to fighting the heart of the overdose problem in New York. Her concerns are that this legislation would further criminalize drug users who have no knowledge of using fentanyl analog laced drugs. 

“This proposal would have the effect of further criminalizing individual drug users,” said Frederique, “which could result in the downward spiral of incarceration instead of an opportunity for treatment for substance use disorder.”

Frederique suggested alternatives to banning the drugs by increasing overdose-prevention strategies, access to naloxone, medication-assisted treatment and overdose prevention centers. 

Naloxone, known for its common brand name Narcan, is a reversal medication for opioid overdose that is largely credited for the recent decrease in opioid related deaths. There are more than 400,000 New Yorkers with naloxone training, and more than 2,000 pharmacies dispense it with no prescription needed.

Although the budget passed, not everything is set in stone for the future. According to Senate Finance Committee Chair and Senator Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, the challenges of passing the budget during the pandemic have altered what was originally proposed at the start of the year.

“Through this budget we will keep New York State solvent and functioning, and meet the needs of the present emergency,” Krueger said. “But make no mistake – this budget is not the final word. Far from it. When the immediate crisis is over, we must take a hard look at where we stand and how we got here.”