WASHINGTON (CNN) - The Department of Justice plans to classify illicit versions of fentanyl as Class 1 drugs in an emergency effort to stop the creation of new synthetic opioids and make prosecution easier.
DOJ and Drug Enforcement Administration officials announced Thursday that they intend to classify substances structurally related to fentanyl in "schedule 1," the highest drug bracket, which is meant for drugs with no medical benefit and a high likelihood of abuse. Heroin and marijuana are also in that category.
The move comes amid the skyrocketing misuse of fentanyl, an opioid typically prescribed for pain.
President Donald Trump "has made it a cornerstone of his presidency to combat the deadly drug crisis in America, and today the Department of Justice is taking an important step toward halting the rising death toll caused by illicit fentanyls in the United States," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement released Thursday. "By scheduling all fentanyls, we empower our law enforcement officers and prosecutors to take swift and necessary action against those spreading these deadly poisons."
In his statement, Sessions also urged Congress to make the new classification permanent.
DEA officials say they have frequently seen chemists and drug dealers alter the molecular structure of the drug by small margins in order to avoid prosecution. Officials hope the new move will thwart those efforts.
"All of these substances are incredibly potent; they all have similar effects on the body, a DOJ official told reporters on a call Thursday. "Our view is these tweaks are efforts to avoid dealing with substances under control either here or abroad."
Officials say the new scheduling of all fentanyl-related substances will make it easier for them to prosecute dealers and drug chemists because they won't have to prove the negative effects of each drug individually, the molecules of which might be minutely altered in various ways from the chemical structure of fentanyl.
"The scheduling action that we anticipate will have different ways that the fentanyl molecule can be altered -- four points in our scheduling action will be covered," an official said on the call. "It avoids us dealing with the whack-a-mole problem because any of the ways they will be altered."
Since 2015, the DEA has instituted six temporary control actions for nine substances that are structurally related to fentanyl.