A hearing Thursday by the US Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations is tackling an issue that is essential to helping stem the opioid epidemic wracking our country: the shipment of synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil into the United States via the global postal system.
From 2014 to 2015, deaths from synthetic opioids rose by 72 percent, fueling the more than 33,000 opioid overdose deaths. Almost every week we hear of communities being ravaged by new, increasingly potent and exotic synthetic drugs. Reports indicate that China is the number one supplier of synthetic opioids, so addressing the shipment of these drugs into the US is crucial. Yet a loophole in the global postal system allows bad actors overseas to avoid scrutiny and mail their drugs directly to Americans’ doorsteps with minimal detection from law enforcement.
As the opioid epidemic ravages communities across America, our lawmakers have a responsibility to do all they can to keep Americans safe. As officials gather for the Senate hearing Thursday to discuss how to shut down this pipeline of drugs into our country, here are three things to watch for.
How has the supply of synthetic opioids impacted the opioid epidemic?
Reports indicate that the opioid epidemic is shifting from prescription drugs like oxycodone to deadlier synthetic opioids. In the past month, Wisconsin, Maine, New Hampshire, and Maryland all reported their first overdose deaths linked to carfentanil, a deadly elephant tranquilizer that’s 10,000 times more potent than morphine. And states across the country — from New York to Alabama — are reporting deaths from a potent mixture of synthetic opioids called “gray death.” In some states, synthetic drugs are now a factor in the majority of overdose deaths.
How are synthetic opioids being sent into the US through the global postal system?
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, China is the number one supplier of fentanyl and its precursors to the United States, Mexico, and Canada. These drugs are sometimes shipped to Canada or Mexico and then trafficked into the US. In many cases, though, they are sent directly to recipients in the US by individuals exploiting a loophole in the global postal system to avoid scrutiny.
More than a decade ago, legislation passed to improve the security of the mail system required private couriers to provide advance digital information on packages from overseas. For each package mailed to the US, private couriers such as FedEx and UPS must attach electronic information that includes the shipper’s name and address, the recipient’s name and address, and the weight of the package. This may be basic information, but it is vital: Given the large volume of mail shipped to the United States, officials can’t manually scan every package.
These data allow law enforcement to effectively target high-risk packages using analytical algorithms. While the private sector has implemented these security protocols, the global postal system has yet to adapt. Nearly 1 million packages continue to arrive in our country every day without critical security data that would help law enforcement identify and stop dangerous packages — including those containing deadly synthetic opioids.
Would closing the postal loophole help officials target illicit packages?
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly recognized that closing this loophole would help officials shut down this pipeline of illicit drugs. In a Senate hearing last month, he agreed that the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, which would close the loophole by requiring electronic data on all packages shipped into the country, could help law enforcement identify and stop packages containing deadly synthetic opioids from entering the United States.
Today, more Americans are dying from drug overdoses than from guns and car crashes combined. There is no single solution to combating the opioid epidemic, but any serious approach must include disrupting the supply chain of these drugs.
In these politically polarizing times, it’s increasingly rare for people across all parties to unite on an issue. But with every state reeling from the opioid epidemic, there is no time for partisan bickering. Fortunately, there is bipartisan support for closing the global postal loophole, which is a commonsense step to disrupt the flow of these drugs into the US.
Our politicians just need to make it happen.
Juliette Kayyem is a lecturer in international security and faculty director of the Homeland Security Project at the Harvard Kennedy School; former assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration; and a senior adviser for Americans for Securing All Packages, a bipartisan coalition of families, health care advocates, security experts, businesses and nonprofits who believe it is time to close a dangerous security gap in our postal system. Kayyem is compensated for her work as a senior adviser to the organization.