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ASHINGTON — 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.

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“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.

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  • Hi to answer the question of what Portugal does & neighboring countries adopted. They lifted prohibition on all drugs u are allowed a small amount for your own recreational use anything over they give u a rehab card where u get clean needles & clean heroin monitored as a result no deaths in their country. The UK had that program along time ago it worked well. . They need to make these drug addicts work after awhile because too much tax payer money goes for addicts. They are not a rich country. But if we legalized drugs & we already pay astronomical amount in allotted money it could work. 80 billion for DEA,Law enforcement, could go for rehab,only 15% is given now plus we allotted 81 billion more between 2015 & now!!!! Make more facilities affordable! Get the Mega greed out of the Rehab manufactured drugs & clinics! Reinstate opiods as the medicine it is legal prescription , stop arresting people kill the incentive to go the black market period just regulate the drugs & tax them!

    • Yes, rationally engaging the problem. All the opioids are basically cheap at base cost. Eliminate the rehab crooks, I agree. Here in Canada they have been partially limited.

    • I agree 100%. But it will never happen because it would decrease the size of the government tit. It’s all about money. They don’t care about anyone getting help. All we have to do is look back to prohibition and what it did to help organized crime. What’s going on right now is McCarthyism.

  • When is the double dealing U.S. government going to get a clue that these drug Abusers & Addicts are going to get their drugs no matter who or what they have to go thru. The CIA DEALS HEROINE TO THE US, THE DEA IS ORGANIZED CRIME & PARASITES reselling on black market. Much easier for them to go after pharmacies innocent doctors , than actually earn a living. War on drugs was never real(created for grant money etc & pure greed) & they failed for 45 years. Meanwhile their is a mass Genocide of legitimate patients whom need real medicine & because of greed they r all dying. Just follow the lead of countres like Portugal & many others, no one will die. Prohibition lifted no one pushing dirty drugs for profit ( no money no incentive! Listen to LEAP Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) interesting how major whistle blowers can come up with a solution like when the CIA brought Cocain to America!!! Inspiration the dirty Rehab industry hand over fist money, everyone in bed with the drug money, the cartels, Bankers, CEOs manufacturers of suboxene Naloxon etc.& our own government. Our government never wants drugs legalized because too much money in it!!!

    • There is a multifaceted balance between addict population, costs to the addict, death rate and societal costs.
      Cheap available drugs of all types will lead to an increase in addicts – who can get and consume whatever they need. This will turn to higher death rates as the cost of available drugs.
      Eliminate all dealers with free drugs will lead to a steady state death rate – say 75% of kids try drugs like heroin and fentanyl = 25% get addicted and eventually die of it or are a permanent drain on society.

      How is this playing out in Portugal? Do they tolerate some traffic, but impose a ceiling?

      Or we could do a random test and kill. Test people at random, kill those with Fentanyl in their blood. Harsh as it seems, it may reduce deaths as new addicts decline.
      It seems as if this harsh process in the Phillipines has dramatically lowered drug deaths – except among traffickers…

  • The simple truth behind this is the fact that 2-3 grams of pure fentanyl painted on a card with a little water and dried will fit in a standard business envelope and be virtually non detectable. It can also be sent as powder in plastic bags?? Since a dose is 1/3 of a milligram of pure drug this is 6000-9000 doses. This traffic is made of many of these small letters, that look like simple mail. Detection? Put the mail in standard cartons, then heat them with – I would suggest an in-line microwave oven, mounted to heat all envelopes with some sort of detector, mass spec or trained dog/rat etc sample the air they give off when a 5 pound vacuum is drawn on a box of letters. This will ID one box, and all those letters can be sniffed in detail. Frequency of the microwave? Some lab tests will show what frequency excites Fentantyl to give off fumes. This sort of setup needs to be tested first to determine if it is practical. The boxes can also be screen for any metal shielding, like aluminium foil, which is easily detectable by a radar like microwave beam of another frequency. I think a determined experimental RF lab would be able to find some sort of method??
    Of course, the smugglers will engage in counter methods, once a method is found to catch the smuggled drugs.

    It can be used on many other drugs as well,.

    • William Jackson. You have no idea what you speak of. The Portugal governkent legalizing heroin and illicit drug use for personal use and not for monetary gain, has reduced all crime related to drugs, and has also put drug addicts in touch with medical staff that are able to minimize death. Here in the USA the government wants the drugs to come in and to put it on main media because all the sentators and congressmen get money of which they skim and pocket. They are all crooks from DEA to CIA to local law enforcement. Yes there are probably .002 percent of law enforcement that have heart and care and do it for the justice reason, but the other 99.998 percent are in it to make money.
      If the USA adopted the same guidelines as Amsterdam and Portugal this issue would be no more. No more black market and cost of illegal drugs would go way down putting drug dealers (all of them) out of business. Why is it the government’s business if I want to use drugs? If I want to cut my arm off and I am over 21 why can’t I do this? They don’t own my body, I do. So as far as I see it, the USA goverment was built upon laws set forth in our constitution, which allows freedom of speech and freedom to do what I want inside my own home. More and more police are overstepping boundaries and the courts allowing judges to be oblivious to what justice means. Justice is supposed to be blind and therefore judges not rule because they hate drug addicts, but rule by guidelines of what the law states. They negate this and do as they please. This is not a free country it is becoming more and more communist country.
      The USPS has no probable cause to open mail or subject it to analysis because it comes from China, so if I get mail from Russia it means it contains national defense insider information??? It is ridiculous to even allow the us government to prosecute anything such as this. But they do and the courts allow this. It is ridiculous. The USA should adopt the same laws and programs as Portugal and allow USA citizen adults to do as they please within their own homes. Legalize the drugs and set a limit of personal use and then package the drugs in sealed contamination proof packaging so that no other human comes in contact with substance and let it through.
      The other way doesn’t work. The definition of insanity is: trying the same thing over and over and over then expecting different results!
      Our government is spending multi billions of tax payers money to fight a lost battle. They will never win. Not ever. They need to accept this and legalize adults use of whatever they want. They pulled decongestant used to make meth amphetamine off pharmacy shelves and limited each us citizen to so many pills per month. So what did the manufacturers do, they went to Mexico and get the same chemical from China and Canada and then they make thousands of tons of this stuff and make the Mexican cartels rich. The USA goverment did nothing but make cartels richer. The drugs are easier and more prevalent then when decongestant was legal to buy without and ID.
      So tell us all how any of this retarder thinking by our government has made any change or difference? San Franciso has now the most potent and easy to obtain meth amphetamine, as well as every other major city in the country. Why? Because the us government tried to make it tough for little Mrs Jones to get her decongestant.
      It’s all perfect proof that USA agencies have no foothold on anything. What they do leads to more cost of drugs and then they become easier to get. It will change for a year and then go back to what it was.
      Your microwave idea lovely. What about little Nellie’s hearing aids???
      Hear what I wrote. I don’t do drugs, but I do understand how it all works. It would be more lucrative for the USA taxpayers to organize all illicit level 1 drugs and stop pestering the doctors and pharmacists that prescribe level 2 narcotics. Take that money and use it to offer treatment facilities at Lowe’s costs. The USA government is controlling majority of drugs on black market. So legalize it and we stop the pigs from benefiting from their illegal activities.

    • Anonymous, you are so correct on everything you said. I have had the same thought process for years. The US goverment knows legalization would be the best option. But all the funding is wanted and the countless jobs to fight this crisis can be kept in our goverment. They simply don’t care about how to fix the problem, just how to keep the money and federal jobs flowing.

  • Buried deep in this report is a clue to a solution. “Might require” better funding for USPS and Customs and Border Protection. You think? Like that is going to happen. USPS has been underfunded for years.

  • When will the USA get a clue that these governments that let drugs come into our country are not our allies, but to the contrary are enemies. China, Mexico, India, and other countries that do nothing to help us with traffickers , BUT are more than willing to take our money and jobs are our enemies and need to be treated as such

    • President Donald Trump has promised that his border wall will stop the illegal drugs flooding into the United States from Mexico. But increasingly the most powerful opioids destroying lives and devastating communities from Maine to Texas are arriving through a different route: from China. Via the US Postal Service

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