On Senate Floor, Portman Highlights PSI Report on Drug Traffickers Shipping Fentanyl Into the U.S. Through the Postal Service
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Last week, U.S. Senator Rob Portman’s (R-OH) Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), which he chairs, released a shocking bipartisan report, which details how drug traffickers exploit vulnerabilities in our international mail system to easily ship synthetic drugs like fentanyl from China into the United States though the U.S. Postal Service. He held a hearing on the report last Thursday. Today, Portman, who has been a national leader in the effort to fight addiction, discussed the investigation’s findings on the Senate floor. Portman urged his Senate colleagues to act on the bipartisan Synthetics Trafficking & Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act, saying “there is clearly a need for a legislative solution to prevent these drugs from entering our country through our own mail system.”
Transcript of the speech can be found below and a link can be found here.
“Today I want to talk about the opioid epidemic that has gripped our country and my state of Ohio and talk a little about a report we issued last week with regard to synthetic opioids coming in through the United States mail system. This tragedy has hit Ohio hard. We are not alone, though. Opioids affect Americans regardless of age, area code, class, or color. Every state represented here in this body has experienced this. Broken families, communities devastated, higher crime rates, friends lost, and of course lives taken through opioid overdoses. The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that more than 63,600 Americans died in 2016 from drug overdoses. That's the last year for which they have statistics, but we all believe it was worse in 2017. But with 63,600 Americans dying of overdoses, that means, on average, more than 174 Americans died every single day. That's up from approximately 143 Americans who died on average every day from drug overdoses a year earlier in 2015 and 105 Americans who died every day in 2010. The problem is getting worse, not better.
“Drug overdoses, in fact, are now the number one cause of death, not just accidental death, but the number one cause of death in America for Americans under the age of 50. The reason for this increase in overdose deaths is the spread of heroin, prescription drugs, and now the synthetic opioids, fentanyl and carfentanil. Opioids were involved in more than 42,000, about two-thirds, of all the overdose deaths in 2016, and opioid overdose deaths were five times higher in 2016 than they were just a few years ago.
“This is a national epidemic, and it's unfolded in three different waves. The first wave was the prescription drug epidemic, pain pills. 15 to 20 years ago that started to increase dramatically. Next, heroin deaths spiked. Heroin being turned to as a less expensive and a more accessible way for people who were addicted from pain pills to continue to receive from—in this cas, heroin mostly coming from Mexico—the high. Now synthetic forms of heroin are overtaking the illegal opioid market. And the results have been even more deadly.
“Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin, has become the new scourge of the epidemic. Fentanyl is so deadly that two milligrams of it—as little as a few flakes of it—can be lethal. It's cheap, easily accessible, and can be added to make any number of illegal drugs more potent: cocaine, heroin, pills. In Ohio, fentanyl and its variations like carfentanil were responsible for nearly 60 percent of our state's more than 4,000 overdose deaths in 2016, the most recent year we have statistics for. That's 60 percent. It's a huge increase from just the previous year, 2015, when fentanyl was responsible for about 37 percent of the deaths. So we've had more deaths from overdoses and a lot more deaths linked to fentanyl. Sadly again, this situation is getting worse, not better.
“Just last week in Ottawa County, Ohio, which is outside of Toledo, we had five overdoses in one week. We had three people die of overdoses in one week. The suspected cause, of course, fentanyl. Earlier this month in Akron, a 57-year-old man, a board member of the Akron Public School system was found unconscious in his car from a drug overdose. First responders were thankfully able to revive the man with Narcan—a miracle drug that reverses the effects of overdoses—and treat him in a local hospital. Again, fentanyl caused the overdose. In July of last year, a 12-year-old Columbus boy encountered fentanyl while he was over at his cousin’s for a sleepover. He was rushed to the hospital but died days later from a lack of oxygen to his brain, as a result of fentanyl.
“These synthetic drugs have invaded communities across Ohio and across the country. Unbelievably, this deadly poison is primarily shipped into America from China through our United States Postal Service. The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which I chair along with Ranking Member Senator Tom Carper, recently held a hearing on this issue. It came on the heels of our year-long bipartisan investigation that resulted in a 100-page investigative report that examined how these drug traffickers in China exploit vulnerabilities in our international mail system to ship these deadly synthetic drugs into our communities. I encourage people to look at that report on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations’ website.
“The results of the report were shocking. We found that it was incredibly easy to buy fentanyl online. By simply searching fentanyl for sale on Google, our staff identified hundreds of website, many affiliated with Chinese labs, all openly advertising this deadly drug. Online sellers were quick to respond, unafraid of being caught, and ready to make a deal. They even offered discounts for bulk purchases and tried to upsell us to carfentanil, fentanyl's even more deadly cousin.
“This is an e-mail from Chinese traffickers offering ‘a hot sale’ for one fentanyl analogue before it is discontinued. Their preferred shipping method is the United States Postal Service, because as they told us, the chances of the drugs being seized were so insignificant that delivery was essentially guaranteed. This chart shows a carfentanil advertisement and the online traffickers suggested USPS as their preferred shipping method. USPS as their preferred shipping method. Why? Because USPS is the way in which the delivery is virtually guaranteed. ‘DHL/UPS/FedEx/TNT are quicker, but not safe, will be detained frequently!,’ they said. Instead ‘we suggest USPS only.’ Wow.
“It is inexcusable that these drugs are as easy to ship as a postcard and that the traffickers preferred shipping method for these deadly poisons is a federal agency, the United States Postal Service. Our Post Office has become a conduit for these deadly drugs. By the way, this is incredibly dangerous for the postal employees, the letter carriers, those who have to handle these packages. I should note that our team never purchased any of these drugs online, but we did use the online sellers’ payment information to determine if others were buying. And, of course, we found out that they were. We narrowed our search to just six websites, six websites, and from those six sites we identified more than 500 payments to those six online sellers by more than 300 Americans in 43 states just in the last couple of years.
“This map shows where the fentanyl went. As you can see, just from those six websites and those 300 people, it went all over the country. The largest concentration of buyers were in my home state of Ohio where you see the red. Also Pennsylvania and Florida. But as I mentioned, again, it went to all 43 states. We were able to track hundreds of packages related to the online purchases. By analyzing more than two million lines of shipment data obtained in our investigation, we located three individuals in the United States who seemed to be distributing these drugs. We also identified two other individuals who purchased items to make pills, including pill presses, chemical bonding agents, and empty pill casings. Our report also reinforced the risk associated with these deadly synthetic drugs. We identified seven individuals who died from fentanyl-related overdoses shortly after receiving packages from these online sellers.
“One of those seven individuals who died was a 49-year-old Ohioan from the Cleveland area. He sent about $2,500 to an online seller and received 15 packages through the Postal Service over a 10-month period. His autopsy confirmed that he died from ‘acute fentanyl intoxication’ just a couple of weeks after receiving a package from this online seller. We're already working with law enforcement authorities to make sure these drug dealers can be brought to justice. We recently released all of our documents to the Department of Homeland Security for them to do their own investigation.
“China has responded to our report. The foreign ministry spokesman said last week that China stands ‘ready to work with the United States to enhance our coordination in this field.’ I welcome China's cooperation and coordination to this fight. But we need more than words. We need action. We need China to ban more of these deadly drugs and do it quicker. We need China to shut down these illegal fentanyl laboratories and arrest those responsible for shipping drugs into our country.
“I had the opportunity last year to travel to China as part of a congressional delegation and I was able to speak directly to some of the Chinese authorities including the Premier, Premier Li, and talk to him about these deadly poisons coming into our communities and how we needed more help to be able to shut down these labs to arrest these individuals. I also made the point that there is evidence that some of this opioid material that's being synthetically produced in China is leaking into their communities and that they have a problem, too. We need to work together to shut this down.
“But one way we can assist law enforcement in this war on synthetic opioids is by simply providing them with the tools they need to identify packages coming in that likely contain these drugs, whether they're from China or whether they're shipped somewhere else, or whether they're from another country that begins to produce these drugs. We have to do a better job of finding these packages and stopping them.
“Because of the roughly 500 million packages that come in by mail every year, interdicting these small packages is very difficult. It can be like finding a needle in a haystack. So law enforcement has asked us to help them to be able to get the information they need to be able to target suspect packages. That is why what's called advanced electronic data is so very important. This is information that comes in advance, such as what's in the package, where it's from, where it's going. That information for packages entering the United States greatly assists our law enforcement. Customs and Border Protection is responsible for this mail coming into our country and they want to identify these suspicious packages and be able to trace them back to both the U.S. distributor and user, but also, of course, to their overseas traffickers. When they have that information, they're able to stop packages, but also then initiate investigations and prosecutions and arrests.
“As part of our investigation, we found that last year the Postal Service only received this advanced electronic data on about 36 percent of the more than 498 million packages coming into our country. That means the United States received more than 318 million packages with no data, meaning there was little to no screening at all. We also found that the quality of the data that was provided was often inadequate and unhelpful to law enforcement. And even when the Postal Service conducted a pilot program to screen for these drugs through the use of this data, they only presented 80 percent of these packages targeted by Customs and Border Protection for inspection. In other words, about 20 percent of these suspect packages came into our communities without the inspection, despite being suspect packages. With these glaring holes in the screening process, it's no wonder these drug dealers choose the Postal Service as their preferred drug delivery system. It's a massive loophole that's undermining the safety and security of our country.
“After September 11th and attacks on that day, 2001, collecting advanced electronic data was identified as a national security priority. In 2002, Congress wrote legislation that required private carriers to collect this advanced electronic data and authorized and encouraged the Postal Service to do it, but left the implementation up to the Postal Service. That was 16 years ago. Because of the 2002 law, private carriers like UPS, FedEx, DHL and others require usable data on every package entering the United States. While the Postal Service gets its data for less than 40 percent of the hundreds of millions of packages it receives every year. And again, the Postal Service data is sometimes not usable, and 20 percent of those packages targeted because of the data are never presented to law enforcement to be inspected.
“Folks, this is just wrong. We can and we must do better. We talked earlier about the number of people dying from fentanyl overdoses, the fact that this is the new scourge. It’s coming in our mail system. We've got to be able to do better and we can. This is why I've introduced what’s called the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act or STOP Act. This bipartisan bill would require the Postal Service to get that electronic data on all international packages entering the United States. The cosponsor of this act is Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and we now have 29 Senate cosponsors from both sides of the aisle. And the bipartisan House companion bill is cosponsored by, I believe, a majority now of the House of Representatives. Why? Because this is just a common-sense solution that people understand has to be done.
“I urge all my Senate colleagues to join us in doing what we can do to stop some of this poison from coming into America and to at least raise the price on the street of this synthetic heroin that is cheap and accessible. By holding the Postal Service, a federal agency, to the same standard we have for the private mail carriers, we can give law enforcement the necessary tools they're asking for to identify and stop these deadly poisons from reaching our communities.
“I understand this is just one part of the solution to deal with the opioid epidemic. Trust me, I get that. I've been working on this for over 20 years and focused mostly on the prevention side and treatment and the recovery. And that's all important. We need to continue to do that because our states are gripped by these opioids and all of it is needed. But there is clearly a need for a legislative solution to prevent these drugs from entering our country through our own mail system. The STOP Act is a clear opportunity and responsibility for Congress to help turn the tide of addiction. I urge all my colleagues to join us in supporting the stop act and by doing so, saving lives.”