In the United States, fentanyl is classified as a Schedule II controlled substance, meaning there is a potential for misuse and dependence, but it does have an accepted medical use and can be prescribed for restricted use.
In 2016, following the high profile case of music legend Prince’s fentanyl-related death and increasing seizures of illicitly-manufactured fentanyls by law enforcement, calls from politicians to increase punishment for possession and/or sale of illicitly-manufactured fentanyls included escalating mandatory minimum sentencing, and even capital punishment for sale of heroin. Between 2011 and 2020, 45 states proposed or enacted new legislation to increase penalties.
In 2018, the DEA used its emergency scheduling ability to temporarily schedule fentanyl analogues as Schedule 1 drugs, which locked in harsh penalties and mandatory minimums for people found in possession of small amounts of these drugs. The emergency scheduling was slated to expire in 2020, but has been extended through October 2021.