On June 27, a House Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing for H.R. 2851: Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues Act of 2017. The law would allow the Attorney General to introduce analogs into a new drug category, Schedule A. Additionally, it would lengthen penalties for drug crimes and add mandatory minimum sentences. One witness, Robert Perez of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection testified on drugs, the darknet, trafficking, and detection methods [ICE/CBP transcript].
The bill garnered bipartisan support as well as a significant opposition from criminal justice reform groups. The unchecked power of the bill, if it becomes law, allows the Attorney General to control the war on drugs, opposers claimed. Instead of needing a substance’s abuse record and public health risk analysis, an eight point study, the AG could schedule a chemical at will.
H.R. 2851 is effectively a blanket response to the so-called “opioid crisis.” While it targeted synthetic drugs in general, it added 13 fentanyl analogs to “Schedule A.” Critics had argued that the bill handed power to ban substances like Kratom (likely the alkaloids, consequently banning the plant) and other non-harmful substances. Supporters argued that it was time to end the opioid crisis, regards of such repercussions.
One of the witnesses was the CBP Acting Executive Assistant Commissioner. He gave the Committee information on the CBP’s ongoing activities in relation to the bill. This article contains the immediately relevant facts and information offered by Perez.
Synthetic Drug Trends, Interdictions, and Challenges
He started with a summary of the drugs in question. Cannabinoids, cathinones, and opioids. The majority of these drugs “are produced in other countries and are principally smuggled through international mail facilities, express consignment carrier facilities [and Southern POEs], he said.
In the fiscal year 2016, CBP seized a total of 3.3 million pounds of drugs. This included: close to 5,000 pounds of heroin; 46,000 pounds of methamphetamine; 200,000 pounds of cocaine; 440 pounds of fentanyl; and 1,214 pounds of synthetic cannabinoids. Between April 2016 and April 2017, CBP intercepted 38 different types of cathinones and 29 different types of cannabinoids.
The drugs can enter the United States through online purchases, he said. Dealers ship the purchases via U.S. mail or other express couriers. People “can also open source and dark web marketplaces for the tools needed for manufacturing synthetic drugs,” he explained. Then further added “[CBP officers] assess these transactions made over both the open and dark webs.” He expects the package seizures to increase through 2017.
CBP’s National Targeting Center (NTC)
The NTC, an entity that operates within CBP, provides “advanced data and access to law enforcement and intelligence records” to the relevant CBP entities. Its end goal is to help CBP identify the suspect packages before the packages arrive at Customs. This is fine by leveraging “classified, law enforcement, commercial, and open-source information,” the official said.
He further detailed the NTC:
“CBP’s NTC – Cargo (NTC-C) Narcotics Targeting team addresses illicit narcotics smuggling on a global scale through an aggressive targeting and analysis program, identifying narcotics smuggling schemes. NTC-C leads CBP efforts to identify and respond to global trends and patterns in the narcotics trade. NTC-C narcotics analysts have identified numerous smuggling trends and combatted DTOs by successfully identifying shipments of drugs, pill presses, and precursor chemicals.”
The NTC partners with ICE, Homeland Security Investigations, USPIS, the FDA’s police, the DEA, the FBI, and others.
Non-Intrusive Inspection Equipment
After September 11, 2001, CBP used NII equipment when analyzing packages. Officers utilize X-ray machinery, gamma ray machinery, and Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy equipment to detect drugs on all types of potential package carriers. This includes mail, other cargo, and even humans.
In fiscal year 2016, CBP officers used NII systems in more than 6.5 million examinations that resulted in more than 2,600 drug seizures. The seized drugs weighed 163,128 kilograms (359,636 pounds).
Advance Information, Targeting, and Information Sharing
Perez explained that the NTC-C analysts countered drug traffickers by not only identifying drugs, but also precursors and pill presses. The CBP can legally seize not only the illegal precursors (NPP and ANPP), but also the legal ones. Officers must identify any illegal purpose for the chemicals. CBP seizes these shipments for further action by HSI or the DEA.
The same regulation applies to pill presses. These are diverted and kept for further investigation, if found to have an illicit purpose. “The Diversion Coordinator works closely with the NTC to identify and target individuals importing and diverting pill press/tablet machines to produce fentanyl and other synthetic drugs,” he told the panel. CBP seized 58 pill presses in fiscal year 2016.
CBP works with multi-agency enforcement teams. They collaborate with local, state, and federal law enforcement on anti-trafficking operations. As of April 2017, CBP employs two full-time USPIS employees. Both work with the NTC narcotics detection division.
CBP additionally partners with private couriers to train them in assisting the CBP. The companies receive training on the detection of hidden substances and in return, the companies potentially lighten the CPSs workload. If a company participates, CBP teaches employees how to spot suspicious packages, surveys the shipping facilities, and recommends operational changes.
The Acting Executive Assistant Commissioner closed with an explanation of the necessity of multi-agency and sector cooperation. “Tackling this complex threat involves a united, comprehensive strategy and an aggressive approach by multiple entities – from law enforcement, science, medicine, education, social work, and the public health sector,” he said. In short, CBP will continue working with outside entities to improve detection and develop tactics. In addition, they will work with USPIS and USPS to remove drugs from the mail flow before reaching the American people.