Purchasing opioids from China requires little more than a Google search, a credit card and a mailbox, senators said Thursday in a report that accuses the U.S. postal system of failing to “recognize and prepare for” a tide of packages containing deadly fentanyl.
Senate investigators said they were able to trace hundreds of transactions between Chinese sellers and American buyers over the course of a year, saying the shipments went through the U.S. mail and led to seven overdose deaths.
Investigators for the Senate Homeland Security permanent subcommittee on investigations started with a simple premise: Was it really that easy to buy fentanyl — the No. 1 killer in the opioids crisis — with a click of a mouse?
After a search returned hundreds of Google hits, investigators found six eager sellers who pitched fentanyl like it was dish soap or floor polish.
“Our fentanyl is very good and our client love the quality,” a seller boasted by email. “We also have powerful opioids like carfentanil.”
Online sellers preferred crypto-currency such as bitcoin but were ready to accept money wires, PayPal and major credit cards, while offering discounts for buying in bulk.
Sellers offered to send the drugs through foreign posts to U.S. mail, avoiding private couriers that require advanced data on packages and make them an easy mark for customs agents, said the investigators, working for subcommittee Chairman Rob Portman of Ohio and ranking Democrat Thomas R. Carper of Delaware.
Mr. Portman has pinpointed the mail system as the weak leak in efforts to stem the opioids crisis. Although some drugs travel up traditional routes through Mexico, he said, the flow of substance from China is the biggest threat.
“We now know the depth to which drug traffickers exploit our mail system to ship fentanyl and other synthetic drugs into the United States,” Mr. Portman said. “The federal government can, and must, act to shore up our defense against this deadly drug and help save lives.”
Drug overdoses killed 60,000 people last year, according to government estimates, driven in large part by the influx of fentanyl and its analogs from overseas.
Dealers are mixing fentanyl into their heroin supplies, delivering a bigger high but posing a huge risk to unsuspecting customers. The surge in fentanyl also explains why the opioids death toll continues to spike, even as doctors and policymakers work to rein in the use of prescription painkillers.
Senate investigators didn’t complete their purchases. Fentanyl is too dangerous to handle, and first responders have overdosed just by coming into contact with it.
Yet by subpoenaing financial transactions and other sleuthing, investigators tied their sextet of sellers to 500 transactions by more than 300 individuals in the U.S., totaling $230,000.
Buyers were located in 43 states, led by Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Investigators identified seven people who died from fentanyl-related overdoses after sending money and receiving a package to one of the targeted sellers.
A 49-year-old Ohio man sent about $2,500 to sellers from May 2016 to February 2017 and received 15 packages through the mail that closely corresponded to those payments. He received a package from the online seller 30 days before he died of “acute fentanyl intoxication.”
Investigators also identified a Pennsylvania address that likely served as a distributor for the foreign sellers, allowing purchasers — including the Ohio man who died — to receive shipments right away.
The Senate agreed late Tuesday to let the subcommittee share its findings with federal and state law enforcement agencies, which may pursue cases against those involved.
Mr. Portman and Mr. Carper released their report ahead of a hearing Thursday on ways to bolster the postal system’s defenses against fentanyl. It will feature testimony from postal inspectors, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other federal agencies.
Mr. Portman is pushing a bill that would force foreign postal systems to send advanced electronic data before packages reach the U.S. so agents can better target those that may contain narcotics.
Senate investigators said pilot programs to induce more advanced electronic data have underperformed. For instance, the Postal Service didn’t present some of the packages requested by customs agents.
The U.S. receives advanced electronic data on 36 percent of all international packages, translating to about 318 million packages without it last year, the subcommittee said.
It also said China provides advanced electronic data on only about half of the packages it sends to the U.S.
In response, the U.S. Postal Service said it “is deeply concerned about America’s opioid crisis and is working aggressively with law enforcement and key trading partners to stem the flow of illegal drugs entering the United States.”
Private couriers already include the data, though postal systems are governed by treaties that make it difficult to force other nations to comply without rejecting their mail altogether.
“The Postal Service is very different from commercial operators like UPS and FedEx, because they have direct relationships with their international customers and can require them to provide AED before accepting their packages,” spokesman David A. Partenheimer said. “The Postal Service receives international packages from foreign posts and must therefore secure cooperation from them, including through bilateral and multilateral negotiations, to obtain AED.”
He said the roughly 40 percent compliance rate is far better than it was three years ago, when the Postal Service received hardly any advanced data on inbound shipments.
While Congress discusses ways to improve that number, President Trump is trying to shine a spotlight on the opioid addiction crisis at large. In October, he declared it a public health emergency and pledged to lean on Chinese authorities, who are starting to crack down on labs within their borders.
Cunning salesmen are finding ways to get around, or even profit from, the get-tough approach.
Senate investigators said in June that online traffickers offered a “hot sale” on a drug known as U-47700, hoping to offload their supply right before Chinese authorities scheduled it as a controlled substance in July.
Sales of U-47700 were “discontinued” by October, but dealers had other wares to offer.
“Yes,” the seller said. “We still have U-48800 for sale.”
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
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