The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis has endorsed it, President Trump touted its goals during the 2016 campaign, and the two most recent Department of Homeland Security secretaries said they supported it.
But a bipartisan bill that would help curb the delivery of the deadly opioid fentanyl by the United States Postal Service to American doorsteps has not seen the light of day, leaving advocates scratching their heads.
In January, Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tom Carper (D-DE) released a report from the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations detailing how the Chinese use the mail to send fentanyl into the United States undetected (PDF). That’s because USPS does not have to follow the same rules as private carriers like UPS and FedEx to have packages screened through advanced electronic data (AED) before entering the United States.
“The websites that were willing to sell fentanyl online, and by the way, it’s scary what’s going on, all said the same thing,” Portman said in a recent interview with Hugh Hewitt. “Send it by the post office. Send it through the U.S. postal service, we’ll guarantee delivery. If you send it through a private carrier, we cannot guarantee delivery.”
Their study looked at six online distributors, five in China and one that was unidentifiable, which shipped hundreds of packages into the United States.
To stop them, Portman has introduced the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act or STOP Act that would bring USPS in line with its private counterparts.
There is hope among advocates that President Trump’s speech on Monday as well as the inclusion of the issue in the White House’s opioid abuse initiative—such as it is—will bring new interest to the issue and renewed urgency for Congress to act on a drug so potent that first responders attempting to help users have become poisoned by mere contact with the substance.
“As Homeland Security Secretary I worried, and the country worried about weapons of mass destruction, we are talking about it. It comes in small kernels of synthetic drugs,” said former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who is a senior adviser for the advocacy group Americans for Securing All Packages (ASAP), which is backed by a number of business groups that rely on the postal service, including several that represent the pharmaceutical industry.
“I’ve had some recent experience with first responders and they show up and do whatever they can to save lives and in the process, in this regard they are jeopardizing their own.”
While Trump’s speech in New Hampshire did not mention the issue specifically (despite reports that he would) and instead went down a policy rabbit hole that included killing drug dealers, accusations that Democrats don’t care about the children of undocumented immigrants, the perils of so-called sanctuary cities and the importance a wall (to somehow stop the influx of drugs from China), Ridge was still hopeful that the president’s previous comments and a slew from federal agencies will spur action.
“There are multiple agencies in the federal government that have already recognized the need to close it, people from DHS have said close it, the Drug Enforcement Agency said that it’s a problem, the Food and Drug Administration said it’s a problem, Customs and Border Protection said it’s a problem, the president’s commission on addiction said it’s a problem, it’s a loophole, let’s close it,” Ridge said.
“The president said in his 2016 campaign in New Hampshire said ‘it’s a problem, close it,’ so I think the agencies that have to deal with the fallout of these illegal drugs they understand and now it’s a matter of getting the Congress to send the bill to the president.”
A Senate aide said plans for bipartisan hearings about the opioids are in the works, but the details were not yet finalized. A White House official echoed this sentiment, saying earlier this week that they had to clear the deck of more pressing issues, like funding the government, before focusing on a coordinated push.
A spokesman for Rep. John Faso (R-NY), the lead co-sponsor of a companion bill in the House, said his boss is working closely with Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) to make sure it moves forward.
A spokesman for USPS defended their efforts, pointing to a statement Robert Cintron, vice president of Network Operations United States Postal Service, made before a Senate committee in January noting that between fiscal years 2016 and 2017 “the Postal Inspection Service achieved a 375 percent increase in international parcel seizures, and an 880 percent increase in domestic parcel seizures related to opioids.”
The statement noted that while the USPS supports the STOP Act, it wants changes to accommodate “direct relationships with their international customers and… require them to provide [Advance Electronic Data] before accepting their packages” instead of requiring the postal service to do the electronic screening itself.
“In the last 3 years, we have gone from receiving almost no [Advance Electronic Data] on inbound shipments to achieving current levels at approximately 40 percent,” the statement notes. “We have suggested thoughtful modifications to the bill to make it workable and effective and which we can fully support.”
Juliette Kayyem, President Obama’s former assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security and ASAP senior adviser, said it was an “interesting argument.”
“What advanced screening data can actually do is provide an opportunity for our packages to be the equivalent of TSA pre-cleared,” she said. “The system we have now (for the USPS) is not a 21st century system, it’s not advanced data screening, we don’t know what’s coming in—very unlike airplanes and cargo.”
Still, she and Ridge hoped that with the president’s attention this would soon be one front of the battle against opioids that could easily be won.
“You say to yourself, well will closing the loophole end it all, it will not, but it’s one of several steps that needs to be taken,” Ridge said. “He committed people [to the opioid issue] he committed money and this one doesn’t require either, it just requires his signature.”