The new drug mules aren’t gang members or down-and-out ex-cons or even children trying to make a quick buck.
In fact, the latest players in drug trafficking often wear a uniform, drive a government car and are due to collect a taxpayer-backed pension when they retire — from the U.S. Postal Service.
Authorities say that the ongoing opioid epidemic is being fueled by the mail, tracing paths from India or China right to Americans’ doorsteps.
“It 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.
“It’s easy to do because, unlike private carriers — think UPS or FedEx — in the mail system you can send a package without having any information attached to it,” he said. “It shouldn’t be that easy, and it doesn’t have to be.”
Congress recently took steps to combat the scourge of prescription painkillers and heroin. But a rash of overdoses has drawn attention to synthetic opioids like carfentanil or its well-known cousin, fentanyl, that travel up drug routes from Mexico or arrive from China and India.
Drugmakers use their own country’s carrier, such as China Post, to ship off regular-looking packages to U.S. processing facilities for inspection by Customs and Border Protection. Many of these foreign postal services don’t send data on the packages in advance — making it hard to root out illicit shipments before they enter the mail stream and turning the U.S. Postal Service into an unwitting drug courier.
The epidemic is deadly.
Tom Synan, chief of police in Newtown, Ohio, said he got word in July that heroin dealers in part of his state were spiking their product with carfentanil, a synthetic opioid so powerful it’s used to sedate large zoo animals. It struck his southwest county a month later, contributing to 170 to 200 overdoses and three deaths in a single week within Cincinnati and the surrounding towns.
“It takes, I think, about 2 milligrams to knock out a 2,000-pound elephant,” Chief Synan said. “This drug is not intended for humans.”
The “enforcement gap” between private carriers such as FedEx and the postal system is a holdover from the Trade Act of 2002, a post-9/11 measure that required the private companies to send advanced electronic data on the senders, recipients and content of packages four hours ahead of the flights that carry them.
The data allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to use algorithms that target certain shipments for enhanced scrutiny and seize more drugs before they get through the sorting process.
Yet Congress left it up to the Treasury to figure out how, or if, to use the regulatory process to impose the same requirements on the postal systems. Those rules never took hold, as it would have required the cooperation of foreign postal systems that send roughly 340 million packages through the U.S. Postal Service each year.
Now, as some parts of the U.S. report more deaths from opioid overdoses than car crashes, lawmakers and law enforcement say profit-seeking labs in Asia are exploiting U.S. mail as the weaker side of the cargo supply chain.
The Drug Enforcement Administration on Thursday issued a sobering warning to police and the public about carfentanil, saying it is often shipped direct from China and has been linked to “a significant number of overdose deaths in various parts of the country.”
Hoping to stem the tide, Mr. Portman has written legislation that would force the Treasury, within six months of enactment, to devise regulations requiring advanced electronic data on packages that enter the U.S. through foreign postal systems.
“The U.S. provides this advanced data information to foreign countries, and our postal system should require it from them. It will strengthen our homeland security and keep dangerous drugs out of America,” said Mr. Portman, who filed the bill with Republican Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. All three are locked in tough reelection battles this November.
A spokesman for Customers and Border Protection declined to comment on the pending legislation or any hurdles it might pose.
The U.S. Postal Service, however, said it is already trying to get more data. It is working with the Universal Postal Union — a 192-member network of postal systems spanning the globe — to try to forge data-exchanging agreements with trading partners and mail operators. It’s also working on a pilot program with the Department of Homeland Security to provide data comparable to that provided by private carriers.
“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.
Earlier this year, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the House Committee on Homeland Security that its customs division is receiving limited advanced electronic data on a voluntary basis from Australia, Canada, China, France, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Spain and the United Kingdom.
The agency planned to expand the pilot to other countries and, if successful, implement it widely so that its cargo inspectors “would be better able to identify high-risk international mail packages.”
While agencies and Congress seek fixes, the DEA is warning police officers to take suspected carfentanil directly back to the lab instead of field-testing it, because accidental exposure through the skin or inhalation could be lethal.
It said the drug is 10,000 times more powerful than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl — the drug that killed music star Prince — and is 50 times more powerful than heroin.
“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.”
For dealers, killing off customers usually isn’t good business. But the synthetic is cheaper than actual heroin, meaning a sprinkle of product can boost their profits as they move on to the next customer.
“There’s a hundred people in line,” Chief Synan said. “So to them, they’re making money and using less product.”