A bill to increase oversight of certain opioids could create a new path for the federal government to ban supplements.
Lawmakers are considering dozens of bills aimed at addressing the crippling opioid crisis our nation is facing. One bill, the Stop Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues (SITSA) Act of 2017, expands the power of the US Attorney General (AG) to add products to the list of controlled substances, opening another door for the federal government to remove consumer access to supplements.
Currently, controlled substances are divided into five categories, schedules 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. The bill creates a sixth category, schedule A, and allows the US AG to either temporarily or permanently add substances to this new category with little oversight if two conditions are met: 1) the substance has a chemical structure that is “substantially similar” to the chemical structure of a controlled substance, and 2) the substance has a stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogenic effect that is “substantially similar to or greater than” that of a controlled substance.
Under normal circumstances, the US AG and the Justice Department must work with Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to make additions to the controlled substances list. By law, the AG must ask HHS to conduct a scientific and medical evaluation and to make a recommendation concerning the substance the AG wants to add to a drug schedule. HHS’s recommendation is binding—if they decide the substance shouldn’t be scheduled, the AG cannot add it. The SITSA Act removes this step and allows the AG to proceed with scheduling without this input from HHS. The bill also increases the length of time a substance can be temporarily scheduled, from three to five years.
The main target of the bill appears to be synthetic opioid analogues: it adds twelve fentanyl analogues to schedule A. Our concern, however, is that the language in the bill is so broad that it creates a pathway to add natural substances to schedule A, with virtually no checks on the AGs power. Chamomile, for example, shares certain characteristics with benzodiazepine, a schedule IV drug in the US. Herbs and supplements used in natural medicine that exhibit neurological affects could be threatened, under the letter of this law. When it’s the federal government that gets to decide what is and isn’t “substantially similar” to a scheduled substance, the situation is ripe for abuse—and to further entrench Big Pharma’s monopoly over medicine by removing the competition. Usually, it’s the FDA or the FTC that goes to bat for the drug industry; now, the AG will be able to step in when these agencies can’t eliminate competition for pharmaceutical drugs.
If the government was serious about combatting the opioid crisis, it would be telling people about cheap, safe, and effective natural alternatives to opioids. There are natural alternatives to pain management, such as fish oil, sulfur-containing methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), and cannabidiol (CBD) oil. Unfortunately, the government is making moves to remove these alternatives from the market. An FDA advisory committee voted to ban MSM medications from being made at compounding pharmacies, and the federal government is moving in on CBD oil—although there is a lifeline for CBD in the Senate’s Farm Bill. This is the kind of backwards thinking we can expect from a crony capitalist system that protects drug monopolies and throttles the competition.