One of the most frustrating aspects of the opioid epidemic for law enforcement and others is that small quantities of drugs 50-100 times more potent than heroin can easily be mailed into the United States from China. Dealers and users can make purchases over the Internet which are delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.
In announcing a national public health emergency on drug abuse, President Donald Trump threw down the gauntlet saying, “And in two weeks, I will be in China with President Xi, and I will mention this as a top priority. And he will do something about it.”
The president will be in China November 8-10. Congress and the Postal Service should have his back. With drug overdose deaths skyrocketing to 64,000 in 2016, an increase of more than 11,500 deaths, or a 17 percent increase from 2015, this is no time for petty politics or partisanship.
The problem of drug inflows from China has been well documented for years. In February, the congressionally-chartered U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reported, “Chemical flows from China helped fuel a fentanyl crisis in the United States, with significant increases in U.S. opioid overdoses, deaths and addiction rates reoccurring over the last several years.”
An important way to curtail opioid inflows is to require that all shipments from China through the U.S. Postal Service be preceded with basic electronic data – including who and where it is from, who it is going to and what is in it, before it crosses the U.S. border. With this information and related algorithms, law enforcement can better identify and check packages for deadly drugs.
John Kelly, as head of the Department of Homeland Security, testified that this information would be helpful for interdiction efforts. Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection have testified similarly. The Postal Service also acknowledges this.
In Congress, a bipartisan measure, the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Protection Act, a.k.a. The STOP Act, would tighten scrutiny on drugs in international mail shipments by requiring seven electronic data information points on international mail.
Introduced in the Senate by Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Amy Klobuchar, the measure is now co-sponsored by a bipartisan and diverse group of senators, including Marco Rubio, Elizabeth Warren and Tim Kaine. Companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives already has 242 co-sponsors.
Among those strongly supporting The STOP Act is the 330,000-member Fraternal Order of Police. In a February 27 letter to Sen. Portman, the organization’s president, Chuck Canterbury said, “Unlike packages entering the U.S. through private carriers – such as UPS or FedEx – the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) does not receive advance electronic customs data for the clear majority of foreign mail entering the United States Postal Service.”
He continues, “This legislation will close the loophole and allow CBP to effectively enforce customs laws that will stop the flow of deadly synthetic drugs in our communities … (it) will prevent more synthetic drugs being trafficked in our communities.”
Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is also very concerned about the dangers to first responders from these highly potent drugs which are harmful just to be around. “We won’t stop reading headlines of tragic fentanyl deaths or of local first responders harmed by these drugs until we take action to keep synthetic opioids out of our country in the first place,” said Ridge in October.
The Postal Service has been opposed to The STOP Act primarily for reasons of costs. At the same time, though, it has been touting its own expanded use of Advanced Electronic Data and urging China to do more in this regard.
Time is not a luxury that America has in fighting the opioid epidemic. Beyond the 11,500 additional deaths in 2016, there are more sobering statistics. In September, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that, “Among the more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths estimated in 2016, the sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs.” From 2002 to 2016 there has been a 2.7-fold increase in drug overdose deaths.
It will not be easy for Congress, the President and the country to overcome the enormous problems related to epidemic drug use. Fixing the mail loophole, though, is an important and sensible place to start.