'We are getting inundated': Report tracks fentanyl shipments through US Postal Service
A Senate investigative committee released a new report on Wednesday revealing how overseas drug distributors have exploited weaknesses in the United States Postal Service to ship an untold amount of deadly, illicit fentanyl into the country.
The lead Republican author of the report, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, described how foreign distributors, largely in China, have taken advantage of e-commerce and loopholes in the postal system to transmit hundreds of thousands of packages of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids to U.S. consumers. "It is shockingly easy," Portman said at a Thursday hearing on opioid interdiction.
In an effort to understand the flow of fentanyl into the United States, a bipartisan staff of Senate investigators produced a 96-page report identifying the weaknesses in the current fight against the opioid epidemic, specifically the overseas supply of those drugs. The investigation began with a simple online search: "fentanyl for sale." Within moments the investigative team was able to connect to an array of international distributors.
"That simple search returned hundreds of websites, many affiliated with Chinese labs, all openly advertising illegal drugs," Sen. Portman explained. "Ordering these drugs was as easy as buying any other product online."
When it came to shipping information, committee investigators noticed the drug distributors had one specific request. "Every single one of them preferred to use the postal service over private express carriers like DHL, FedEx and UPS," the senator said. The reason shippers gave, Portman explained, was that the chances of the drugs getting seized through the postal service were so insignificant "that delivery was essentially guaranteed."
The ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, used one word to describe the findings of the report: "alarming."
The committee never completed an order, but used the online sellers' payment information to track 300 U.S. buyers in 43 states and hundreds of packages sent through the U.S. Postal Service. A number of those packages were delivered to suspected "pill presses," illegal operations that produce and sell counterfeit prescription opioids often manufactured with a lethal degree of inaccuracy.
"We seize these fake Oxys that are fentanyl and the people who are [making] it do not have PhDs in chemistry, and so they are putting amounts in there that is lethal," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota, said of the pill presses. "It's killing people."
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, is generally considered to be lethal at 2 milligrams. For some perspective, 2 milligrams is less than one-tenth of a grain of salt.
According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control, more than 42,200 people in the United States died from opioid overdoses in 2016. The fatalities in 2017 are expected to be even greater. Approximately 20,000 of those overdose deaths were related to fentanyl or fentanyl analogs. That shockingly high overdose rate marks a 540 percent increase in the fentanyl-related deaths since 2014.
Though the postal service has implemented better screening methods in recent months, top officials had a difficult time defending the agency's past record. Unlike the private mail carriers, USPS is not legally required to collect advance electronic data on the packages shipped to the country from overseas. That data is as simple as the name and address of the shipper, the recipient and a description of the cargo.
In 2015, the postal service started a pilot program to improve its data gathering which went into effect mid-2017 and has also signed a bilateral agreement with Chinese postal operators and operators in 22 other countries, to try to crack down illicit fentanyl shipments.
As a result of the shipping data, Customs and Border Control (CBP) has been able to stop large amounts of fentanyl from ever entering the country through the mail system.
CBP executive assistant commissioner of field operations Todd Owen said on Thursday that his agents have gone from seizing 50 pounds of fentanyl shipped in international mail and express courier in 2015 to stopping 335 pounds of fentanyl in 2017.
"At our largest international mail facility at JFK airport, CBP officers have made more fentanyl seizures in the first 3-1/2 months [of fiscal year 2018], than they have all of last year," Owens told lawmakers. Much of that success has been related to the postal service demanding foreign postal operators, particularly in China, provide shipping data.
Despite the higher rate of interdictions of mail and express packages as well as increased seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border, Owens is not satisfied. "The trends continue to go up," he said, describing the volume of fentanyl entering the country is "overwhelming."
Additionally, Sen. Carper described the task of Customs and Border Patrol agents as "finding a needle in a haystack." More than 5 million pieces of mail were sent through the postal service in 2017, and until about six months ago, agents were forced to sort through the parcels manually.
The postal service's vice president of operations Robert Cintron noted that by December 2017, USPS was receiving advanced electronic data on about 40 percent of its foreign postal shipments and prioritizing information on shipments from China. That still leaves upwards of 2 million pieces of mail unchecked. Moreover, the U.S. Postal Service's Inspector General acknowledged that much of the data it does receive is "often incomplete or inaccurate."
"We are just getting inundated," Sen. Heitkamp said, noting that opioids are pouring in through the mail and across both the northern and southern borders.
The Drug EnforcementAdministration (DEA) has clearly documented how China serves as the primary supply source for fentanyl and its chemical precursors and the Senate report has now documented how easily the products can be bought online from Chinese laboratories and shipped through international mail.
Arguably, the delivery of fentanyl through the mail is more serious than the shipments across the southern border, according to data from Customs and Border Patrol. Owens explained that the fentanyl products CBP agents interdict through the mail have about a 90 percent purity, compared to the product agents seize at the U.S.-Mexican border, which typically has a 40 percent purity.
In Mexico, fentanyl is largely being mixed with other drugs, like heroin, or pressed into pills, and shipped across the southern U.S. border. According to the DEA, the majority of U.S. heroin originates in Mexico.
"We are failing," Heitkamp stressed. "We have to be more urgent. We can build a $20 billion wall, but we won't solve this problem... if we simply focus on China. We will not solve the problem of interdicting these drugs if we simply focus on Mexico."
The potency of these drugs combined with a continued surge in demand coming from the United States has meant immense profits for those involved at each stage of the fentanyl supply chain. A single kilogram of fentanyl purchased from a Chinese supplier for $3,000 to $5,000 can generate upwards of $1.5 million on the illicit market, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data.
Because of current policies and enforcement practices, the potential gains in the illicit opioid trade are extremely high and the potential loss is minimal.
In addition to recommending more data on packages being sent to the United States, lawmakers and law enforcement agents are also pushing for a crackdown on suppliers.
Daniel Baldwin, section chief of DEA's Office of Global Enforcement, stressed that he wants to "take the head off the snakes" and target the synthetic opioids at their source in China.
"China is the small side of the funnel, meaning that's the place were things are originating," Baldwin explained. "We need to get the packages before they get to the United States and branch out to a thousand different locations within the United States."
Baldwin said that DEA along with its interagency partners can try to track every package and every trafficker within the United States, "but if we can get the small end of the funnel, attack some of those distributors in China that are sending tens of thousands of packages to the United States, we would have a greater impact."
Democrats and Republicans on the committee urged President Donald Trump to bring up the issue of synthetic opioids in his future discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping, especially since Trump has said he has a "very good relationship" with the Chinese leader.
Portman suggested that the next step with regard to China is "taking action and prosecutions."
The Department of Justice recently indicted two Chinese nationals for using the U.S. mail system to deliver fentanyl to the United States. However, those two have not been tried in China and are currently not in custody.
"How about prosecuting these two individuals," Portman recommended. "Two individuals, out of the thousands of labs in Chian that are sending this poison into our communities. That would be a good step."
The Senate is currently reviewing a number of pieces of legislation to provide additional resources and authorities to the U.S. agencies at the forefront of the opioid fight. Earlier this month, President Trump signed the INTERDICT Act, a bipartisan bill providing an additional $9 million in funding for Customs and Border Patrol to purchase equipment for screening packages, mail and travelers for illicit opioids.