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UPDATE 1-U.S. drug agency to toughen stance on illicit fentanyl analogs

(Recasts; adds details about the DEA's new scheduling action)

WASHINGTON, Nov 9 (Reuters) - The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said on Thursday that it would classify illicit versions of the synthetic opioid fentanyl at the same level as heroin, allowing criminal prosecution of anyone who possesses, distributes or manufactures illicit versions of the drug.

The action is the Justice Department's latest effort to address the country's opioid epidemic.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids were responsible for more than 33,000 U.S. deaths in 2015. Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.

Legally prescribed fentanyl is currently classified as a Schedule II drug, meaning it is highly addictive but has a medical purpose.

Naming illicit fentanyl as a Schedule 1 drug, along with heroin, means that is addictive and has no medicinal purpose.

Under the new DEA order, any new alternative chemical versions of fentanyl will be listed as Schedule 1 drugs, effectively making them illegal. Many types of fentanyl analogs have made their way into communities across the United States in recent years, with many coming from China.

These drugs are chemically similar to fentanyl and have similar effects on the human body, but chemists tweak their molecular structure so that they fall outside of the DEA's scheduling regime, thereby skirting the law.

To combat these chemical look-alikes, prosecutors have traditionally relied on the Federal Analogue Act. But the law presents some cumbersome challenges.

Although the government can prosecute people for making or selling analogs not listed on a DEA schedule, it needs to prove they are structurally similar to other scheduled drugs and have the same effects on the body.

The Justice Department has typically brought such cases in a piecemeal fashion, and each case has often entailed a battle among scientific expert witnesses about the chemical make-up of the drug or drugs at issue.

That approach has led to a "game of whack-a-mole," one Justice Department official said on Thursday, because criminals are able to simply make another molecular tweak and concoct a new version of the drug that is not listed in the schedule.

The newly announced emergency scheduling of the fentanyl analogs is only temporary, but the DEA can take such a step if the public is facing an imminent safety threat.

It will last for two years, and potentially can be extended an additional year. (Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Susan Thomas and Leslie Adler)