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Stopping the Flow of Opioids into the U.S.

April 27, 2018

This week, the House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee held a hearing entitled “The Opioid Crisis: Stopping the Flow of Synthetic Opioids in the International Mail System.” The hearing focused on efforts to improve the detection of synthetic opioids in the international mail system, including legislation that would require the transmission of advanced electronic data (AED) on international mail to prevent synthetic opioids from entering the United States.

Trade Subcommittee Chairman Dave Reichert (R-WA) started the hearing by saying:

“There has been a sharp rise in the number of deaths involving fentanyl – a cheap, synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times stronger than morphine. The number of Americans who died from an overdose of a synthetic opioid more than doubled from 2015 to 2016. Because fentanyl is so potent, it takes only a very small amount to cause a severe or deadly reaction … Fentanyl enters the United States with alarming ease. It is frequently sold online and then shipped to the United States – typically from China – through express delivery carriers or through the international mail. Because it’s shipped in such small quantities, it is very difficult to detect.”

The Chairman added that while CBP has, by law, required private carriers to transmit advance electronic data – such as the names and addresses of the shipper and recipient, as well as the package contents – on shipments to the United States, the Postal Service is not subject to the same requirement:

“As a result, international mail shipments arrive in the United States with little information.  This lack of data creates a significant vulnerability that can be easily exploited by drug traffickers.”

The Subcommittee heard from senior officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Postal Service about this vulnerability in the international mail system.

Todd Owen, Executive Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), emphasized the problem faced by CBP:

“The smuggling of illicit synthetic drugs in the international mail and express consignment carrier environments poses a significant threat, one which is exacerbated by the dramatic increase in the volume of international mail and express consignment shipments.

Chairman Reichert asked whether having advanced electronic data would help CBP and the Postal Service better protect their employees.  Mr. Owen responded:

“As an agency we have put an emphasis on personal protective equipment and safe protocols to handle the Fentanyl … Every day 1.7 million parcels come into the country through the mail and through the express courier facilities …  the manual inspection of volumes like that are not efficient and not effective. We need advanced electronic information so we can use our targeting system to identify those shipments that pose a greater risk and then initiate the proper inspection protocols.”

Members learned about the agencies’ efforts to improve the detection of synthetic opioids in the international mail through a pilot program to test the effectiveness of acquiring AED on a subset of mail shipments.  This requires the Postal Service to enter into bilateral agreements with foreign postal operators, who must agree to provide AED.

Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC) asked how many foreign postal operators have bilateral agreements with the Postal Service to provide AED on international mail shipments under the pilot program. Mr. Owen responded by saying that 28 foreign posts currently provide AED to the United States.

Mr. Owen said that having AED has improved CBP’s ability to detect illegal shipments, and he emphasized that the data has improved during the course of the pilot program:

“Now that we have been at this for about 18 months we have seen the quality improve as well as the timeliness of the data improve … we’re able to effectively target the shipment before it arrives. The process is improving.”

Rep. Mike Bishop (R-MI) asked if there is a consensus to address this problem. Both Mr. Owen and Robert Cintron, Vice President of Network Operations for the U.S. Postal Service, agreed that there is a consensus. Mr. Bishop continued by stating:

“This is an urgent problem…300 million international packages enter the United States with no advanced electronic data or shipper address or data – that is a huge number – we simply cannot continue to allow this to happen.

Rep. Bishop followed up by asking:

“How do we put a solution in place to work with China?”

Mr. Cintron responded:

“We’ve been working on signing bilateral agreements.  We’ve got 5 of them — AED is absolutely mandated … we’ve got the untracked packages out of China specifically which represent a significant amount of volume that come into the country without AED. We will have a substantial amount of AED, most of the China mail, by the end of the year. That’s our focus with them.”

Lastly, Rep. Bishop discussed legislative solutions to address vulnerabilities in the international mail system:

“I’m working with my colleagues to introduce a bill to close the loophole and make it harder for these drugs to enter illegally. It’s designed to stop dangerous synthetic drugs like Fentanyl and Carfentanyl from being shipped through our borders. Specifically, the bill would require shipments from foreign countries through our postal system to provide advanced electronic data, such as who and where it’s coming from, who it’s going to, where it’s going, and what’s in it, before the United States will accept it. This will enable our respective agencies to better target illegal packages and keep these dangerous drugs from ending up in the hands of drug traffickers who want to harm our local communities and children.”

The Ways and Means Committee is committed to providing a legislative solution that will require AED on international mail shipments in a way that is achievable and effective and holds the agencies accountable to Congress.

CLICK HERE to learn more about the hearing.