How Opioids Are Coming Into The U.S. By Mail And Why It's So Hard To Stop

May 23, 2018
Originally published on May 23, 2018 9:52 pm
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Several factors have contributed to the nation's opioid epidemic, including the availability of cheap pain medications like fentanyl. Now Congress is trying to make it harder to get fentanyl. And as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, they want the Postal Service to help.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It's not clear how many shipments of fentanyl and other narcotics arrive via postal workers. But what is clear, says former Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem, is it's all too easy to get drugs delivered right to your mailbox.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: If you go on the dark web and you look at these communications, they basically say, well, how can you get this stuff here? And they say, we'll just put it through the mail because the chances of it getting caught are just so minimal.

NAYLOR: Minimal because the U.S. Postal Service receives some 1.3 million inbound packages a day from overseas. It manages to inspect just a tiny fraction - about a hundred. There are nine international mail facilities that handle incoming parcels. One of the largest is at O'Hare International Airport. Matthew Davies is the port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Chicago. He says his officers are working pretty much around the clock, but it's like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

MATTHEW DAVIES: I think we do our best to catch as much as we can. There's always going to be challenges in terms of how much can you find. And I think the more we look for opioids or other types of narcotics, the more we tend to find.

NAYLOR: CBP says seizures have been going up. In the six-month period from October 2017 through last March, 934 pounds of narcotics were seized, almost as much as were captured in the preceding 12 months. Still, it's a small fraction of what's believed to be arriving in the country. Some in Congress say CBP needs to hire more agents to inspect more packages and slow over-the-border smuggling. Others, like Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, one of the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, say the answer lies with the post office.

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ROB PORTMAN: This drug primarily is coming through the United States mail system from primarily one country, China - laboratories in China where some evil scientist is mixing this deadly brew and then sending it through the U.S. mail into our communities.

NAYLOR: Portman is sponsor of something called the STOP Act. It would require mailers of international packages to provide data - their names, addresses, the packages' contents at the sending post office, which would enter it in a database available to U.S. authorities, which would help CBP screen packages. Private carriers like FedEx and UPS already have to collect this data. In a Senate speech last week, Portman said the Postal Service should, too.

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PORTMAN: How many more people have to die before our own Postal Service takes the measures that we know can be taken to be able to stop these poisons?

NAYLOR: In a statement, the Postal Service says it's working aggressively to stem the flow of illegal drugs and that advance electronic data is now on more than 40 percent of incoming packages. But it opposes the STOP Act and backs a competing bill that would allow the requirement that all packages contain the data be phased in. A Senate GOP aide speaking on background blames the Postal Service for providing misinformation about the bill and suggesting it's unworkable. Juliette Kayyem, who's part of a group called ASAP that is pushing for the STOP Act, says getting data on all packages is key to getting a handle on the crisis.

KAYYEM: You then can start to look at trends. Wait a second. There is this neighborhood; there is this street in China that seems to be mailing packages under 4 ounces twice a day, right? I mean, and then not to be grotesque about it, but, you know, if someone dies here, it would be nice to have a mechanism where you could trace it back. Where did they get it?

NAYLOR: The STOP Act has bipartisan support in the House and Senate but has yet to be scheduled for a vote. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.