WASHINGTON — Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of fentanyl — and likely more — is pouring into the United States through international mail — and the federal government isn’t equipped to track it or prevent it from happening, according to a nearly yearlong bipartisan Senate investigation.
The 100-page report, released Wednesday from Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) and conducted by the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations, looked at just six online sellers offering fentanyl — the powerful opioid implicated in a growing number of overdose deaths. Five are based in China; investigators could not confirm the location of the sixth.
Those vendors — all found through a simple Google search — sent hundreds of packages to more than 300 U.S. based individuals. And they primarily used the government’s own U.S. Postal Service to carry the illicit cargo.
“Thanks to this bipartisan investigation, we now know the depths to which drug traffickers exploit our mail system to ship fentanyl and other synthetic drugs into the United States,” Portman said in a statement. “The federal government can, and must, act to shore up our defenses.”
Connecting sellers to buyers
By subpoenaing Western Union for payment information related to the six online sellers, investigators identified $230,000 in payments in 500 financial transactions with U.S.-based individuals or businesses — an amount that would translate into $766 million worth of fentanyl, based on its U.S. street value. The investigators linked that same data to USPS, FedEx, and other private shipping companies, which allowed them to identify recipients and find packages they received in a similar time frame.
Through that work, the investigators determined that seven individuals had died of a synthetic opioid overdose after a transaction with one of the online sellers. One Ohioan, for example, had paid an online seller $2,500 between May 2016 and February 2017 and received some 15 packages through the Postal Service during that time. He overdosed on a synthetic opioid less than a month after receiving one such package.
Another 18 buyers have since been arrested for drug-related offenses. Investigators said other information suggested an individual in Pennsylvania was acting as a local distributor for the Chinese entity.
Prior reports have pointed to China as the primary source of illegal opioids coming into the U.S. The Drug Enforcement Administration and United Nations narcotics monitors have identified China as the primary source of most of the fentanyl in U.S. street drugs.
That is possible, the lawmakers and investigators said, because the U.S. Postal Service and Customs and Border Protection have outdated and flawed systems for tracking illicit substances sent through international mail.
“We now know the depth to which drug traffickers exploit our mail system to ship fentanyl and other synthetic drugs into the United States,” Portman said in a statement. “The federal government can and must act to shore up our defenses against this deadly drug and help save lives.”
A tracking gap
The report comes as politicians across Washington work to respond to the nation’s ongoing opioid epidemic. More than 63,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016, some 20,145 of which were caused by fentanyl or other synthetic opioids according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. President Trump declared the epidemic an emergency last fall and his administration renewed that order last week.
In a briefing at the Capitol on Wednesday, investigators said they trained their sights on USPS because the online sellers they communicated with said they preferred to ship fentanyl through Express Mail Service, the international delivery service that ships through the Postal Service in the United States.
The online sellers required an extra fee for shipments sent through FedEx or other private services because of the likelihood they would have to re-ship the package, but “virtually guaranteed” packages delivered through the USPS, the investigators said. (The investigators did not actually complete a fentanyl purchase with any of the online sellers or receive a shipment, they said.)
Part of the reason for this confidence has to do with differences in how well Customs and Border Protection can track packages from the various carriers.
Right now, CBP inspects international mail at five different international shipping centers. That’s an increasingly difficult job: More than 498 million international packages were shipped through through the USPS alone in 2017, up from about 275 million the year prior.
Much of CBP’s tracking is done using advanced electronic data — basic shipping information required on FedEx and other delivery services packages, but not required for USPS shipments. Only about 36 percent of USPS shipments have the advanced data, a fact which complicates CBP’s tracking efforts.
CBP flags potentially problematic shipments to the carriers, which find and turn over the packages for inspection. CBP can also ask USPS to monitor all packages from a specific country, but has struggled to address the large volume of shipments from China. Some sellers also routed their packages through other countries to avoid that detection.
Calls for change
The report recommends several federal improvements, including requiring advanced electronic data for all international packages — a change that would have to be facilitated through the State Department, in part.
It called on CBP to ramp up the number of packages it targets for inspection, with an emphasis on illicit drugs. And it called on USPS to automate the process for turning over targeted packages. It suggested, too, that increasing those programs might require extra resources for both agencies, and directed Congress to further examine and address those funding needs. Lawmakers also urged the U.S. to work more closely with China to stem the tide of drugs and ramp up enforcement.
USPS told STAT in a statement it is working with law enforcement and authorities in other countries to help address the opioid crisis. An agency spokesman pointed to a 375 percent increase in international mail seizures between fiscal year 2016 and 2017, and an 880 percent increase in domestic seizures related to opioids, and said USPS will continue to work “tirelessly” to address the issue.
Portman and Carper will hold a hearing Thursday with officials from USPS, Customs and Border Protection, the State Department, and the Department of Justice to seek further input on the report.
Portman has also sponsored bipartisan legislation that would require shipments from foreign countries to include more advance electronic data. USPS has said it supports that goal, but pointed out that the legislation doesn’t recognize distinctions between USPS and commercial carriers like FedEx. It has shared potential modifications with Portman’s staff.