In September, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman delivered remarks on the Senate floor, highlighting his legislation to stop opioid trafficking. Following mass overdoses on fentanyl and carfentanil, lawmakers are racing to combat what has been described as an epidemic. Portman’s legislation, the Synthetics Trafficking & Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act, focuses on making trafficking via USPS more difficult.
“It [carfentanil] comes from our postal system and their postal system into the United States. Unbelievable — the poison is coming in the mail to our communities,” said Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, in a recent floor speech.
The legislation, jointly introduced by Senators Rob Portman, Ron Johnson and Kelly Ayotte, aims to close so-called USPS loopholes. The loophole, according to the senators, is USPS forgoing electronic advance data of international packages. Private mail carriers such as FedEx and UPS require advance electronic customs data for mail entering the US. This data allows Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to see who sent the package and who will receive it.
Such data lets CBP know what packages need to be scanned based on specific algorithms. One current example of automatically flagged packages are those originating from the Netherlands. However, in the STOP Act, China and India are cited to be the primary source of incoming fentanyl and carfentanil.
Senator Ayotte explains the trafficking section of the bill in the press release:
Our bill will strengthen postal rules for packages shipped through the United States Postal Service, bringing them in line with requirements applicable to private shippers. These requirements will help law enforcement more quickly gather information when tracking and interdicting an illegal shipment and help us more effectively stop dangerous drugs from reaching traffickers inside our borders.
In the past, Congress has left decisions on postal system regulations up to the Treasury Department. The Treasury makes the decisions because such changes would require major monetary resources. As The Washington Times points out, cooperation from foreign postal systems would be required. The US receives roughly 340 million international packages every year; the changes would be both costly and time consuming.
Senators behind the STOP Act are not the only US government officials concerned with narcotics shipped through USPS. At a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs roundtable, DEA, CBP, and U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) agents voiced concerns.
Rep. Pat Tiberi and Rep. Richard Neal also introduced the STOP Act as a House companion to Portman’s Senate bill. “In Ohio, we must stand on a united front to fight the opioid epidemic and save more lives,” Tiberi said. “I’m thankful for Sen. Rob Portman’s leadership and I look forward to building support for this important legislation in the House.”
The US Postal Service is likely to be in support of Portman’s bill, a spokesperson tells the press. USPS is currently working with Universal Postal Union to try to create agreements between global postal systems. Similarly, USPS is collaborating with Homeland Security in a pilot program for collecting currently available electronic advance data.
“We continue to evaluate the bill’s language and share the goal of Sen. Portman and others calling for expanding efforts to keep illicit drugs and other dangerous materials out of the hands of the American public and maintaining the safety of our nation’s mail system,” Postal Service spokesman David A. Partenheimer said.
The aforementioned pilot program from Homeland Security is already seeing some voluntary electronic advance data submissions from various international countries. So far, Australia, Canada, China, France, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Spain and the United Kingdom have started sending information. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the House Committee on Homeland Security that the data is very limited but quite promising. If successful, the program will expand to more countries.
After busting a pill counterfeiting lab where fake painkillers were being pressed with carfentanil, the DEA issued a carfentanil warning. “It is a grave risk for law enforcement, for public health care workers and for first responders,” said DEA Special Agent Brian Besser. “Carfentanil is surfacing in more and more communities,” said DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg. “We see it on the streets, often disguised as heroin. It is crazy dangerous. Synthetics such as fentanyl and carfentanil can kill you.”
Customs and Border Protection declined to comment on Portman’s STOP Act or any similar pending legislation. Likewise, The DEA released no statement pertaining to proposed changes but did confirm that China is the most concerning exporter.
Dennis Wichern of the DEA’s Chicago Field Division spoke about opioid investigations in China. He says the Chinese government is working with DEA agents based in China to stop the manufacture of fentanyl analogs. “They recognize they have a problem with the synthetic drug explosion, as I call it,” he said. “The Chinese are all aboard. They’ve outlawed it. We’re working with them,” Wichern said. “We have agents on the ground every day in Beijing and Hong Kong working with the Chinese to stop this.”
Congress has a busy schedule currently, meaning the passing of Portman’s bill has only a small window to fit in. It must pass spending bills to keep the government open by the end of the fiscal year: September 30. However, Portman says he will continue to pursue the bill if it fails to pass this year, if reelected.