There are roughly 30,000 undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin. To imagine all these lives could be lost in the course of a year is nearly unfathomable — but definitely possible. In 2016, 64,000 people died of drug overdoses — over twice the size of our undergraduate population. This may not seem as dramatic as losing an entire subset of university students, but the numbers are staggering nonetheless.
Since 2010, opioid-related deaths in Wisconsin have increased by more than 400 percent. The rise of synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl, adds to the danger of drug addiction. Deaths involving fentanyl nearly doubled from 2015 to 2016, and its effects have been seen in Madison just last month, resulting in 14 overdoses and two fatalities in only five days.
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Fentanyl is a Schedule II controlled substance, categorized as such because of its potential to treat acute chronic pain. But, since fentanyl is the result of carefully orchestrated chemical bonds, chemists need only modify the structure of the fentanyl molecule ever so slightly to create a new version of the drug. Since these new versions, called fentanyl analogs, can be so numerous and variate, they are not categorized by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. This loophole makes easy for drug manufacturers to bypass United States customs and legally make a profit selling deadly fentanyl analogs.
Although Wisconsin has suffered its fair share of losses due to the opioid epidemic, Wisconsin lawmakers have been working hard to fill this gap in drug enforcement policy. More than a year ago, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, introduced the Stopping Overdoses of Fentanyl Analogues Act to the United States Senate. If passed, the SOFA Act would give the DEA the authority to schedule fentanyl analogs as Schedule I controlled substances as soon as they are intercepted by law enforcement. The hope is that speeding up the criminalization of various fentanyl analogs will minimize their use, and consequently the overdoses the drug would have caused. From a logistical standpoint, the SOFA Act will likely make history in terms of its efficiency in getting dangerous drugs off the streets.
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However, the SOFA Act is not just unprecedented due to its potential effectiveness. 52 state and territory attorney generals signed a letter urging the top Democrat and Republican members of Congress to pass the SOFA Act. Such a display of bipartisan cooperation is rarely seen in today’s political culture. Though this does prove the great prevention power the SOFA Act may have, it speaks volumes on what government cooperation could mean for the American people. At the end of the day, whether the policy is about illicit drug use or any other healthcare topic, the job of the government is to protect the well-being of the people. Democratic attorneys general supported a Republican-sponsored bill because it was right regardless of party affiliation. This show of support will be integral in the eventual passage of the SOFA Act.
Furthermore, the attorney generals’ letter shows the competency of America’s separation of powers. The SOFA Act has been a mere bill for nearly a year — it took the urging of multiple attorneys general to thrust the act into the national spotlight. Given that the attorney generals, even on the state level, are a part of the executive branch, this letter can be seen as an executive check on the legislative branch. According to Sen. Johnson, “It’s really big and I really appreciate our attorney general, Brad Schimel, that led that charge and got them all signed up, which has obviously gotten the attention of senators and members of the House in terms of the importance of this piece of legislation.” Clearly, this check has had a momentous influence on the SOFA Act. With proper checks on government branches and bipartisan cooperation, lives can be saved.
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America is constantly at the forefront of change, especially in a political climate as polarized and volatile as the one we live in today. In this time of chaos and fear, of overdoses and senseless loss, the SOFA Act is a beacon of hope, not just for drug prevention, but as an indicator that American democracy is still functional, even in times of great doubt.
Abigail Steinberg ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in political science and intending to major in journalism.