In 2016, more Americans died from drug overdoses than were killed during the entire Vietnam War. A big part of this problem is opioids, which were involved in about two-thirds of all overdose deaths. These drugs take lives regardless of age, area code, class, or color.
This national epidemic has unfolded in three waves. First, prescription drug use exploded about 15 to 20 years ago; second, heroin deaths spiked as people moved to the less-expensive, more-accessible alternative. And then today, synthetic forms of heroin are overtaking the market — and the results have been deadly.
In Ohio, fentanyl, a synthetic drug 50 times stronger than heroin, and its variations were responsible for nearly 60 percent of all overdose deaths in 2016. Fentanyl’s deadly potency, cheap cost, and widespread availability have made it the new scourge of the opioid epidemic. Unbelievably, fentanyl is primarily manufactured in Chinese labs and shipped into America through our own U.S. Postal Service.
The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which I chair along with ranking member Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., recently held a hearing on this issue. It came on the heels of our yearlong bipartisan investigation into how drug traffickers in China exploit vulnerabilities in our international mail system to ship deadly synthetic drugs into our communities.
Through a simple Google search, our staff identified hundreds of websites, many affiliated with Chinese labs, openly advertising and selling fentanyl and other illegal drugs.
The online sellers were quick to respond, unafraid of getting caught, and ready to make a deal. The preferred shipping method for all of them was the U.S. Postal Service because, as they told us, the chances of the drugs being seized were so insignificant that delivery was essentially guaranteed.
We never purchased any drugs, but we did use the online sellers’ payment information to determine if others were buying. From just six websites, we identified more than 500 payments to online sellers by more than 300 Americans in 43 different states.
We identified seven people who died from fentanyl-related overdoses shortly after buying packages from online sellers. One of these individuals was a 49-year-old Ohioan who bought 15 suspected fentanyl packages delivered through the Postal Service over a 10-month period. His autopsy confirmed that he died from “acute fentanyl intoxication” just weeks after receiving a package from an online seller.
Drugs should not be as easy to ship as a postcard, and the U.S. Postal Service should not be the preferred conduit for drug trafficking.
Last year, nearly 500 million international packages entered our country through the U.S. Postal Service. Our investigation revealed that the Postal Service’s efforts to screen packages entering the country is woefully inadequate.
Law enforcement, including Customs and Border Protection, use what is called advance electronic data to identify suspicious packages and search them for fentanyl. This is information such as the names and addresses of the sender and receiver and the contents of a package.
Last year, the Postal Service only received advance electronic data on about 36 percent of all international mail. That means the U.S received more than 318 million international packages with no data, meaning there was little to no screening at all. In contrast, private carriers like UPS, FedEx, and DHL must provide advance electronic data on every single package entering America.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress identified this as a national security priority and required private carriers to collect advance electronic data. But for the Postal Service, it remains optional. This massive loophole is undermining the safety and security of our country.
That is why I introduced the Synthetics Trafficking & Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act. This bipartisan bill, which has 29 Senate co-sponsors and was endorsed by President Trump’s opioid commission, will require the Postal Service to get data on all international packages entering the U.S. to give law enforcement more tools to identify these poisons. By simply holding the Postal Service, a federal agency, to the same standard as private mail carriers, we can help stop a lot of these synthetic opioids from ever reaching our streets. It’s just one part of the solution, but I believe it will help make a real difference.
Overcoming the opioid epidemic will take a comprehensive approach that includes increased prevention, treatment, and recovery efforts. However, we now know that inadequate federal policies and vulnerabilities in the U.S. mail are contributing to this epidemic. Stopping these deadly drugs from ever reaching our streets will help turn the tide of addiction and save American lives.
Rob Portman is a U.S. Senator from Ohio. You may contact him through his website, www.portman.senate.gov/public/