Last week, the US House of Representatives passed H.R.2851, the “Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues Act,” or the SITSA Act for short. This bill, introduced by Representative John Katko (R-NY), sets up a legal pathway for the Department of Justice to quickly place drugs into a new legal category without waiting for input from other government agencies, something Katko says will help combat the opioid crisis. While critics, including Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, and the NAACP, argue that this bill represents an unnecessary expansion of the War on Drugs that is unlikely to actually address the opioid crisis, the SITSA Act’s supporters’ concerns are based at least somewhat in reality.

The fear that underlies the SITSA Act is the increasing number of synthetic opioid analogs, which is a growing concern among public health and law enforcement officials.

What is a Chemical Analog?

A chemical analog is a molecule that’s very similar in structure, though not identical, to another chemical. An analog could be produced by tweaking a few atoms in a molecule, or it could be produced through other means altogether. The SITSA Act is concerned specifically with synthetic opioid analogs, which are chemically similar to existing drugs — both legal like fentanyl and illegal like heroin — but not identical. Because of their technical differences, these substances can sometimes be sold openly on the internet because they’re not exactly the same as other controlled substances.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is increasingly showing up in heroin. And so are other synthetic opioids analogs of fentanyl.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is increasingly showing up in heroin. And so are other synthetic opioid analogs of fentanyl.

More and more often, they’re showing up in heroin, causing accidental overdoses. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that powerful opioids like illicitly-produced fentanyl are responsible for a large portion of recent increases in opioid overdose deaths in the US — of which there were over 40,000 in 2016. It’s not just fentanyl, though. Carfentanil, an analog of fentanyl that’s about 100 times more potent, is responsible for hundreds of deaths in the US.

See also: Kratom Could Be Illegal Before It Gets a Chance to Solve the Opioid Crisis

So while chemical analogs are structurally different from existing drugs, they’re often similar enough at their core to have similar effects — or sometimes even more potent effects.

If passed, the SITSA Act will broaden the Federal Analogue Act of 1986, which established that an analog of a Schedule I or II drug can be dealt with as if it had the same legal status as that drug, even if it was not actually illegal. Schedule I of the Federal Controlled Substances Act includes drugs of the highest illegality, including heroin, marijuana, and LSD. Schedule II, which includes oxycodone and fentanyl, designates tightly controlled prescription drugs. So under the Federal Analogue Act, any analog of fentanyl is already illegal to possess without a prescription.

Kratom leaves yellow background
Some kratom advocates fear the SITSA Act would create a backdoor to make kratom illegal, but it's not clear if that could happen.

What the SITSA Act does is establish specific criminal penalties for possessing or selling synthetic analogs, in the form of prison sentences and steep fines. For this reason, criminal justice reform advocates argue that the bill is unnecessary since criminalizing drugs has been shown to disproportionately affect people who are already marginalized.

Advocates for the opioid replacement kratom have also argued that the bill, if passed, could also make it [easier for the federal government to illegalize kratom, since the FDA has already claimed that the drug is chemically similar to prescription opioids. It’s not clear whether the SITSA Act would actually create any more authority for the DOJ to schedule kratom than it already has, though.

The SITSA Act passed the House of Representatives with 239 votes for, 142 against, and 42 representatives not voting. The bill was read before the Senate on Monday, and has been passed to the Senate Judiciary Committee for review. Check back to Inverse for further coverage.