WASHINGTON (KAKE) - Two Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation to make distribution of fentanyl resulting in death punishable by federal felony murder charges. 

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Rep. Tony Gonzales introduced the Felony Murder for Deadly Fentanyl Distribution Act last week. A release from Rubio's office said illicit use of fentanyl is now the leading cause of death among Americans aged 18-45.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid intended to help people such as cancer patients manage severe pain. CNN reports it's 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and it's used illicitly because of its heroin-like effect, and even small doses can be deadly.

"According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, drug dealers are increasingly targeting children and young people with fentanyl pills made to look like candy," the release said. 

The DEA issued a warning earlier this month about brightly-colored fentanyl pills used to target young Americans. The agency said it and its partners in law enforcement seized colored fentanyl and fentanyl pills in 18 states.

“Fentanyl is killing Americans at a record high. This deadly drug is widespread throughout our country and has left no community untouched," Rubio said. "This bill would make drug dealers pay the price for selling deadly fentanyl.”

“Fentanyl is being smuggled through our southern border at record levels. Not only has this lethal drug led to thousands of American deaths, but cartels are now targeting our children and young people. With the Biden Administration failing to resolve this national security crisis, it is time for Congress to take matters into its own hands. That’s why I am proud to introduce this critical legislation alongside Senator Rubio to ensure criminals who traffic this deadly drug are met with severe penalties under the law,” Gonzales said.

In the two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, annual drug overdose deaths have jumped 44%. There were 75,702 deaths in the 12-month period ending March 2020, compared with 109,247 deaths in the latest 12-month period ending March 2022, according to CNN.