Is the U.S. Postal Service the new Silk Road?

An investigative report, released Thursday, from a Senate subcommittee shows that drug makers in China are funneling opioids such as fentanyl into the United States through the mail. The report also suggests that American government agencies are doing little to stop it.

“This bipartisan investigation has uncovered how incredibly easy it is to buy these deadly drugs online and have them shipped here through the mail,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a statement Thursday. “Agencies like the Postal Service, U.S. Customs and Border Projection, and the State Department must redouble their efforts to keep illicit opioids from reaching our shores.” Portman’s home state of Ohio is currently being ravaged by the drug crisis. In his statement, Portman noted that in Ohio, “fentanyl is now the number one killer, surpassing heroin, prescription drugs, and car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death.”

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

The 100-page report, co-sponsored by Portman and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., begins by outlining the “staggering” number of Americans affected by the opioid crisis. In 2016 alone, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reported more than 63,600 deaths from opioid overdoses — three times more deaths than occurred from opioid overdoses in 1999. That also means that more American lives are lost to drugs in one year than are lost to breast cancer, gun violence, or car crashes in the same amount of time. The annual death toll of Americans killed by accidental opioid overdoses is also now higher than the American death toll throughout the entirety of the Vietnam War.

Aiming to change this landscape, the subcommittee set out to learn how Americans are so easily obtaining these drugs. Within seconds, they found their answer. A simple online search with the words “fentanyl for sale” yielded page after page of sellers ready to ship opioids to a buyer’s door at a moment’s notice.

The drug sellers seemed almost entirely located in China, so the committee zeroed in on six of them. The process of purchasing these drugs, as the report shows in email screenshots, creepily mimicked regular online shopping. The sellers offered “flash sales” and “discounted prices on bulk services”; they wrote things like “Hurry up, hot sale!” and “Must go by July 1!”

Although most of the sellers reportedly asked to be paid in cryptocurrency, they were willing to accept Western Union, PayPal, MoneyGrams, and even credit cards. What the subcommittee found the most troubling — and the focus of their report — was how quickly this online conversation can (and often, does) land illicit drugs on the doorstep of someone in the United States.

Using the sellers’ information, the subcommittee tracked transactions to 300 Americans in 43 states — seven of whom ultimately died from opioid-related incidents. “One such individual was a 49-year-old Ohioan who sent roughly $2,500 to an online seller over the course of 10 months,” the report reads. “He died in early 2017 from ‘acute fentanyl intoxication’ … [after receiving] a package from an online seller just 30 days before his death.”

Through emails with the sellers, the subcommittee deduced that the online drug sellers prefer to ship the drugs via the U.S. Postal Service because “the risk of seizure by Customs and Border Protection (CPB)” is low, and therefore the shipping can be “basically guaranteed.” The preferred method is Express Mail Service (EMS), a USPS delivery service for “documents and merchandise contained in letters and packages.” These opioid-filled parcels are just a small number of the millions of packages that the USPS delivers each year (200 million in each of the two weeks before Christmas alone), so they evade search by authorities.

The report blames the U.S. Postal Service for failing to set up an automated system to intercept packages that contain illegal opioids and also blames CPB for failing to collaborate with the USPS to get this done. In 2015, the two departments reportedly tried to set up automated systems, launching a pilot program at John F. Kennedy International Airport to “target and present small packages from China.” But according to the report, the agencies “failed to establish any performance metrics or even define what would be considered a success for the pilot.”

Speaking to Yahoo Lifestyle, the USPS refutes the claim that they have neglected to address the issue. “The U.S. Postal Service 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,” says USPS spokesperson David Partenheimer. “In collaboration with federal agencies and state and local law enforcement, improved investigative techniques have increased our ability to interdict opioids like fentanyl.”

Partenheimer points to a “375 percent increase in international parcel seizures” and an “880 percent increase in domestic parcel seizures,” as well as legislative support from the USPS on the STOP Act, a bill aimed at increasing advance electronic data (AED) on inbound and outbound parcels. 

CPB sent a similarly vehement message to Yahoo Lifestyle disputing the report. “U.S. Customs and Border Protection is committed to combatting the flow of dangerous illicit drugs, including synthetic opioids, into the United States,” a CPB spokesperson tells Yahoo Lifestyle, adding that Executive Assistant Commissioner Todd Owen will be testifying in front of the committee on Friday. “CBP will continue to work with our government and private-sector partners to improve the efficiency of information sharing and operational coordination to address the challenges and threats posed by illicit narcotic smuggling in the international mail environment.”

Blame aside, as it stands now, packages containing opioids are easily shipped into the U.S. via international mail and are evading the eyes of both the USPS and CPB. The fact that fentanyl is at least one of the major imports in this scheme is particularly troubling. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the most commonly abused opioids as prescription painkillers (e.g., Vicodin and OxyContin), use of fentanyl — which can be laced into heroin or taken separately — has skyrocketed in recent years. The synthetic opioid is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and, as such, can be deadly.

Portman, in his statement about the report, suggested that the use of fentanyl inspired his investigation as a whole. “We must keep this poison off our streets and out of our communities,” he said.

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