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Cuomo calls for legislation to crack down on synthetic opioids

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo traveled across the state Thursday, including a stop in the Buffalo area, to call on lawmakers to classify 11 fentanyl analogs as controlled substances that carry harsher penalties for their manufacture and sale.

Cuomo is also directing the state Department of Financial Services to advise health insurers against placing arbitrary limits on the number of naloxone doses covered by a health insurance plan.

Many of the overdoses and deaths attributed to opioids are linked to the synthetic painkiller fentanyl, which is many more times powerful than heroin.

Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, is the drug used to reverse fentanyl overdoses.

"Drug dealers and trafficking organizations are flooding our streets with addictive, deadly drugs that devastate families and destroy lives in communities across our state, and we must take bold action to close loopholes and hold these criminals responsible," Cuomo said prior to a press conference in Cheektowaga.

"We outlaw one chemical compound and they tweak it slightly. So now it's another chemical compound just as dangerous, while it, technically isn't illegal because it's a different chemical composition than the first one," Cuomo said in Cheektowaga.

Overdose deaths in the state involving opioids increased nearly 35 percent between 2015 and 2016 to about 2,900, according to statistics from the governor's office. However, fentanyl-related deaths increased at a much higher rate – nearly 160 percent statewide, officials said. In Erie County, more than 1,100 residents have died of suspected or confirmed opioid overdoses, including from fentanyl, since 2012.

Fentanyl analogs have been increasingly found in heroin and cocaine, and they are being pressed into pill form to resemble name-brand prescription opioids with varying but often lethal potency, officials said.

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The proposed legislation would add 11 fentanyl analogs to Schedule I of the controlled substance schedules of New York State Public Health Law, including acetyl fentanyl, butyryl fentanyl, beta-hydroxythiofentanyl, furanyl fentanyl, and acryl fentanyl. The 11 substances are already listed on the federal schedule of controlled substances.

The legislation also will give the state health commissioner the authority to add to the state controlled substances schedule any new drugs that have been added to the federal schedule.

Actual fentanyl is a Schedule II synthetic opioid available by prescription and used as a painkiller in surgery or in palliative care at the end of life. It is a felony crime to sell fentanyl on the street or use it without a prescription.

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However, individuals illegally tweak the molecular structure of fentanyl to create new, unregulated chemicals referred to as fentanyl analogs. The analogs are chemically similar to fentanyl, and may even be more potent, but are not listed on the state's schedule of controlled substances. As a result, they are not subject to the same criminal penalties.

"It is extraordinarily dangerous, much more dangerous than K2 and more dangerous than heroin. The numbers are frightening. It takes about 30 milligrams of heroin. Synthetic fentanyl is only three milligrams. So, if you are a first time user and you don't know about this drug, it is very easy to kill yourself," Cuomo said in Cheektowaga.

Also at the governor's new conference were Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul; Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz; Erie County District Attorney John Flynn; local representatives of the state Senate and Assembly and the Buffalo Common Council; and head of the state's Department of Economic Development Howard Zemsky.

News Reporter Harold McNeil contributed to this story.

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