By Sari Horwitz

The Washington Post

In an effort to stem the increasing opioid-related overdose deaths, the Justice Department announced Thursday that anyone who possesses, imports, distributes or manufactures any fetanyl-related substance can be criminally prosecuted.

Justice officials said that overseas chemical manufacturers, aided by domestic distributors, try to evade regulatory controls by using analogues — or structural variants — of fentanyl that are not directly listed under the controlled-substance law. That has forced prosecutors to overcome difficult evidentiary hurdles to convict traffickers under another law, Justice officials said.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that the department’s action to include all fetanyl-related substances on the Drug Enforcement Administration “drug schedules” will give his prosecutors an important tool amid the nation’s opioid overdose epidemic.

“By scheduling all fentanyls, we empower our law enforcement officers and prosecutors to take swift and necessary action against those spreading these deadly poisons,” Sessions said.

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid, sometimes mixed into heroin or cocaine. Most illicit fentanyls come into the United States through the mail or express shipping systems or are imported across the southwest border, according to the Justice Department.

Every day, 55 Americans die of overdoses of synthetic opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The overdose death rate from synthetic opioids about doubled between 2015 and 2016 when more than 20,000 people died of overdose deaths, a Justice official said.

Last summer, the DEA warned police officers, firefighters and other first responders who might come into contact with fentanyl to be careful about touching or inhaling any powdery white substance.