AP sources: Tool behind crackdown on opioids could expire

FILE - In this March 25, 2021, file photo, President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington. The Biden administration has been slow-walking the extension of a legislative order that would keep in place a sweeping tool thats helped federal agents crack down on drugs chemically similar to fentanyl. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
FILE - In this March 25, 2021, file photo, President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington. The Biden administration has been slow-walking the extension of a legislative order that would keep in place a sweeping tool thats helped federal agents crack down on drugs chemically similar to fentanyl. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration has been slow-walking its work on the extension of a legislative order that would keep in place a sweeping tool that's helped federal agents crack down on drugs chemically similar to fentanyl, three people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press.

In recent weeks, the people said, the White House and Justice Department leaders have, on several occasions, canceled meetings with officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration to discuss the plan around so-called fentanyl analogues, which are generally foreign-made drugs with a very close chemical makeup to the dangerous opioid. The people had direct knowledge of the discussions but were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity.

The legislation temporarily classifies the synthetic opioids as a Schedule 1 drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act, making it easier for prosecutors to build cases against traffickers. The emergency authority, initially authorized in 2018, is set to expire next month and requires Congress to reauthorize it.

The Biden administration will need to either quickly move forward to lobby Congress to pass another extension, propose a permanent legislative solution that could quickly pass the House and the Senate or put a plan in place to prosecute cases involving the synthetic opioids if the temporary authorization expires.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to avoiding expiration of this legislation, and we have communicated that clearly to both parties in Congress,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said.

There is growing concern from lawmakers and law enforcement officials, who fear that failing to act could lead to a surge in opioid deaths, and the rapidly approaching deadline makes it nearly impossible to reauthorize it in time. The U.S. is in the midst of an opioid crisis.

But saying a quick yes isn't quite so simple. The situation is politically thorny and has the potential to anger both Democrats and Republicans. Most of the drugs are coming in from China, and if President Joe Biden were to skip the reauthorization it could create foreign policy issues, but there are concerns from some in the administration over mandatory minimum sentences attached to the order that have the potential to anger reformists.

The law triggers some mandatory penalties for possessing large quantities of fentanyl or fentanyl analogues, and it's been a hold-up, the people said. For example, possessing 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of a fentanyl analogue triggers a 10-year mandatory minimum penalty; the same penalty would apply for possessing 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of heroin.