In 2017, nearly 50,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose. In 2018, synthetic opioids accounted for over 28,000 overdose fatalities across the United States. Hundreds of those victims died here, in the Carolinas. They were our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors. And while we are encouraged by a recent decline in the reported death toll, the untimely loss of any life to this drug scourge is too great of a tragedy. As law enforcement leaders, this epidemic requires our continued and sustained attention.

One of the deadliest synthetic opioids is fentanyl, a drug 50 times more potent than heroin, and 100 times more powerful than morphine. Incredibly small quantities — measured like the grains of salt — can kill the average person.

Illegal fentanyl is manufactured in high-volume labs in China and Mexico, and its chemical structure is easily altered to create new drugs, called fentanyl analogues. Analogues can be created simply by altering just a single molecule.

Prior to 2018, drug traffickers were able to run sophisticated operations and evade law enforcement and prosecution by altering the chemical composition of fentanyl just enough to skirt the law. Even more frightening, the compounding done in illicit labs varies so much that no one can be sure of the amount they are ingesting.

To address this problem, in 2018, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) used its authority to temporarily ban all fentanyl-related substances and closed a loophole used by drug traffickers to exploit our laws and profit off our people.

At the same time, it is important to note that the Trump administration was able to persuade the Chinese government to prohibit fentanyl analogues as well.

However, the DEA’s order expires on Feb. 6, and, unless Congress acts, many fentanyl analogues will become legal. Congress’s inaction will deliver a serious blow to our efforts to prosecute drug organizations and dealers who traffic in fentanyl. Further, it will make it more difficult to put behind bars those responsible for the deaths of our loved ones.

The U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives recently approved a temporary extension of the DEA’s temporary order. That is a good start. But, in order to stem this deadly epidemic, we need Congress to act decisively and permanently declare all fentanyl analogues illegal. Congress’ action will permanently arm law enforcement with the tools necessary to protect our communities from these deadly illicit drugs.

Critics of a permanent ban argue that the bill does not include a public health approach to the overdose crisis. We wholeheartedly agree that only a comprehensive approach will stem the tide of this public health crisis. Indeed, each of our U.S. attorney’s offices collaborates with health care professionals, social services providers and a wide range of community groups to implement comprehensive solutions to address this problem.

But strong criminal laws are a critical component of the nation’s response to this crisis, and time is short. Mexican and Chinese drug traffickers eagerly await the expiration of the DEA’s temporary order to flood our communities with their increasingly deadly analogue poisons.

We join U.S. Attorney General William Barr and our fellow U.S. attorneys across the country in calling upon Congress to permanently ban all fentanyl-related drugs. The lives of countless Carolinians depend upon swift and decisive action.

Higdon, Martin and Murray are the U.S. attorneys for the Eastern, Middle and Western Districts of North Carolina, respectively. Crick is the acting U.S. attorney for the District of South Carolina.

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