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Legal loophole allows drug shipments into country via U.S. Postal Service

Cincinnati police seized a massive amount of synthetic opioids in July. (Source: WXIX) Cincinnati police seized a massive amount of synthetic opioids in July. (Source: WXIX)
The USPS receives almost a million packages from foreign countries. If this bill passes, foreign posts will be required to provide electronic data that would help catch the dealers. (Source: AP/Elaine Thom The USPS receives almost a million packages from foreign countries. If this bill passes, foreign posts will be required to provide electronic data that would help catch the dealers. (Source: AP/Elaine Thom

(RNN) – When chemists in clandestine Chinese labs want to smuggle a shipment of illegal drugs to American drug dealers, they drop it in the U.S. mail.

For criminals, the United State Postal Service is the most reliable way to ship powerful, deadly synthetic opioids like fentanyl, carfentanil, and U-47700 that are fueling America's drug epidemic. The domestic postal service does not require the same digital tracking data required of FedEx, UPS and other private carriers, which creates an opening exploited worldwide by dealers.

These drugs are usually manufactured in illegal labs in China, and range from 50 times to many thousands of times stronger than heroin. A small package is easy to ship and goes a long way - a kilo of fentanyl equals 50 kilos of heroin, and the same amount of carfentanil, a large-animal tranquilizer, is equal to thousands of metric tons at a fraction of the cost.

Dealers mix them with heroin to add kick and stretch the supply at a low cost - a dose can be bought for as little as $10 on the street. Specks the size of a few grains of salt can trigger a fatal overdose.

A loophole in a 2002 law allows drugs shipped from countries like China, Mexico and India to slip into the U.S., undetectable among the millions of packages that arrive in the U.S. daily. 

"These dealers see an opening and they go for it," said Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota who, along with Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, is sponsoring a bill that could close that loophole.

"We are the ones that have to be as sophisticated as they are. That means putting tracking information on packages," Klobuchar said.

Electronic information that would tell exactly where packages came from and who received them is already required by private carriers like UPS and FedEx. If enacted into law, the new bill could allow the U.S. to collect more than $1 billion a year in unpaid duties and fees each year by some estimates. That and a $1 per package fee stipulated in the bill would go toward funding the data collection.

The Synthetic Traffic and Overdose Prevention Act would require foreign postal services to provide electronic security data on all packages shipped from their countries to the U.S. The USPS will collect the information and share it with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies, enabling them to red-flag and intercept suspicious packages.

Portman introduced the STOPAct on Feb. 14, the same day fellow Ohio Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi introduced companion legislation in the House. Both bills are currently in committee.

Americans for Securing All Packages (ASAP) is a self-described "bipartisan coalition of families, healthcare advocates, security experts, businesses and nonprofits who want to close the loophole." 

“Our cities, urban and rural, are being overwhelmed by the opiate epidemic,” said Juliette Kayyem, senior adviser for ASAP and a former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. “People are dying in numbers equivalent to the number of people who died in World War II weekly.”

Portman has said on the Senate floor, in op-eds and on national TV that now is the time to act on the STOP Act.

"How many more Americans have to die before our government gets its act together?" Portman asked witnesses testifying before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which he chairs.

Support has been bipartisan and overwhelming. The House bill is co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts. Portman’s bill is co-sponsored by conservative Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is co-sponsored by 19 senators, including political opposites like Sen. Luther Strange, R-AL, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA. The House bill has more than 120 co-sponsors.

The sponsoring senators represent states that are among those hardest hit by the American opioid crisis, which in the past three years has killed tens of thousands nationwide, with hundreds more dying every day.

President Donald Trump has promised "to close the shipping loopholes that China and others are exploiting to send dangerous drugs across our borders into the hands of our own Postal Service." He said his administration will give law enforcement the tools they need to accomplish the mission.

The STOPAct would be the first step toward proving a crucial tool to attack the opioid crisis at the supply side,  said Kayyem, who hopes the bill will be passed by the end of this year.

"We aren’t pretending that this one act will stop an epidemic," said Kayyem, and Portman agreed.

There's no silver bullet to stop the opioid crisis but there are a lot of silver BBs, and this bill is one of them, he said.

Opioids have created a public health crisis that will not be solved by one law, said Kayyem. A solution will take the cooperation of law enforcement, access to mental health treatment, and solving educational problems between state and local government and national commissions.

"But for the first time, we’re taking a look at controlling the supply side, not just the demand side," of drug traffic, Kayyem said.  

The cost is not prohibitive, she said, and will be borne by the sending countries.

"This is data management," she said, a technology that is already in place. "We don’t need drones and gizmos that could make cost a barrier."

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