- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2018

The State Department, hoping to mollify lawmakers who say deadly opioids are being mailed illegally into the country, told Congress on Thursday that within two years most countries will be able to describe packages to inspectors before the parcels enter the U.S.

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations says that despite progress in recent years, it’s still far too easy for U.S. consumers to order fentanyl and other potent drugs online.

Chinese drug salesmen are exploiting the U.S. mail, which has struggled to extract advanced electronic data (AED) from foreign posts, even though private couriers like UPS and FedEx supply it before each of their parcels arrive. The data allow customs inspectors to detect trafficking patterns and intercept illicit packages.

Officials from the State Department, U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Thursday while there is work to do, the landscape is improving, as developing nations acquire the tech savvy to supply AED or decide to cooperate.

“We’re confident that by 2020, the United States will be receiving AED for most of the mail entering the country,” Joseph P. Murphy, chief of international postal affairs at the State Department, told the subcommittee.

Upon questioning, however, he said government officials merely expect countries to be able to provide the data by 2020. There’s no guarantee the U.S. will actually receive it.

“There isn’t at this point a firm deadline by which every country must be able to send AED for all of its mail,” he testified.

Subcommittee Chairman Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, said he’s growing impatient, because thousands of Americans are dying from overdoses right now.

While he applauded the postal service for setting up pilot programs to get China and other countries to provide more data, less than half of incoming packages are preceded by electronic data, even though the U.S. includes it on nearly all of the packages it sends overseas.

The senator said the postal service and customs agents need to make illicit shipments of fentanyl a priority and do a better job of coordinating their efforts. He said internal emails suggest the agencies are working at cross purposes — the postal service delivers mail, customs scrutinizes it — and might need another nudge from Congress to take the problem seriously.

Inspectors only extended their targeting program from John F. Kennedy International Airport to key shipping gateways in Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco and Chicago after Congress turned the screws in a public hearing in early 2017, according to Mr. Portman’s office.

“We’re committed to aggressively increasing AED for packages coming into the United States in order to improve the targeting of illicit drugs and other contraband,” Robert Cintron, vice president of network operations for the Postal Service, assured the subcommittee.

He said the postal service receives advanced data on about 40 percent of packages, compared to virtually no data three years ago.

Thursday’s hearing followed the release of a 100-page report that says Senate investigators were able to trace hundreds of transactions between Chinese fentanyl merchants and American buyers over the course of a year. Subcommittee staff tied the shipments to seven overdose deaths and 18 arrests involving synthetic opioids.

The investigators tried to buy fentanyl themselves, starting with a Google search, and found it “shockingly easy” to do.

Notably, all of the sellers preferred to use the foreign mail network that includes the Postal Service — rather than private couriers — boasting that delivery was “essentially guaranteed” due to lax oversight.

“This is a massive loophole that’s undermining the safety and security of our country,” Mr. Portman said.

Some of the advanced electronic data that does arrive is indecipherable, the senator added, amounting to gobbledygook from someone who doesn’t know how to write out an American address.

Drug overdoses killed 60,000 people in 2016, according to government figures, driven in large part by the influx of fentanyl and its analogs into the heroin supply, so Mr. Portman and bipartisan cosponsors are pushing legislation that would require electric data on all mail.

“How many more people have to die before we keep this poison out of our communities?” Mr. Portman said.

Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat whose staff co-authored the report, said the fight needs to be an “all-hands-on-deck moment.”

The Department of Justice says one of those hands — China — is becoming more cooperative. It’s taken steps to schedule specific fentanyl compounds, and it is preparing to declare a more sweeping ban on all of its varieties.

Chinese authorities on Thursday insisted they want to be helpful, according to a report by The Associated Press.

“Anti-drug coordination is one of the highlights of China-U.S. law enforcement cooperation,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. “We stand ready to work with the U.S. to enhance our coordination in this field.”

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