Senators Tackle Drug Trafficking Via Mail Systems

Senators Tackle Drug Trafficking Via Mail Systems
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Senators grappled with the supply side of the nation’s growing opioid epidemic on Tuesday, noting the significant amount of drugs entering the U.S. through the mail.

But combating the problem is complicated by the different ways mail is sent and the variety of rules each delivery system operates under.

“I completely appreciate the concerns … about treaties and obligations to move the mail, but we never agreed to move the mail by moving poison into our communities,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) said at a hearing of Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “We can’t just look at this as a drug enforcement problem.”

The United States Postal Service, for example, is part of the Universal Postal Union (UPU), an international forum that sets rules for the international mail system. United Parcel Service is not part of that system, which means the post office is bound by more rules and treaties than its private sector counterpart.

Additionally, USPS uses a paper system, while UPS is completely electronic. UPS also has a database that keeps track of packages, their shippers and places of origin to better allow the service to determine risk assessments of imports and identify problem areas.

Then there is the fact that some countries shipping to the United States aren’t advanced enough to use an electronic system.

“I’m not sure that there is a legislative solution to this problem,” said Joseph Murphy, chief of the international postal policy unit within the State Department. “The reality [is] that there are 192 postal services in the world -- some of them quite large, some of them dwarf ours, [some] with very limited capacity and a large network. There are 10,000 post offices in India. Many of them don’t have electricity.”

As a result, getting countries to agree to more advanced data and risk assessment is more difficult, he said.

 “The reason for the disparity in the advance data is because we’re piloting this right now, and we get varying levels of compliance from the different countries in the UPU,” said Guy Cottrell, an official with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. “We continue to work with [the State Department] and with customs to try to increase the compliance, but it is a work in progress, and we have better compliance from the larger, more developed countries than we do from some of the other countries.”

Most of the opioids are coming from India and China, and while the latter is being cooperative in trying to identify these trafficking networks, there is currently no such agreement with India.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection does use targeting systems to identify suspicious packages.

“In the mail side we literally take giant sacks of mail and put it through x-rays looking for those shipments of concern, so clearly having the advanced data allows us to be much more effective in our targeting,” said that agency’s Todd Owen.

While international trade has grown over the years, the staff of some of these agencies has not. Owen said his agency needs 2,107 additional officers to keep up with the growth in international trade, and other panelists agreed more funding was necessary.

Enforcement is also hindered by the difficulty in detecting these drugs. A slight change in their molecular makeup can make them much more difficult to identify, often requiring a lengthy and more costly lab analysis, Owen said. Holding packages for an additional few weeks can tip off the importer and make it more difficult to catch them. Additionally, with the increased use of fentanyl, an opioid that can be lethal even when touching a person’s skin, agencies do not want to use drug dogs because of the toxicity.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who has been outspoken on the opioid epidemic because of the toll it has had on his state, advocated for putting more resources into the detection part of the problem.

Drug traffickers’ “target is the United States of America, and Europe to a certain extent,” Portman said. “We’re where the demand is, apparently, where the money is, and this is where it’s coming, and it may get diverted to another country. … Regardless of where it’s coming from, there should be a way to detect it.”

He noted that fentanyl killed 84 Ohioans in 2013, 502 in 2014 and he predicted that, when the data is released from 2015, the tally will exceed 1,000.

Committee Chairman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) argued that detection and technological solutions will not solve the problem, and instead advocated increasing information collection. This way, even if the source moves, the agencies will be better prepared to combat the drug flow.

With a seemingly insatiable demand for drugs in the U.S., there will always be some sort of supply, and the profits from this business are so lucrative that exporters will never stop, he said.

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