On Senate Floor, Portman Urges Senate to Follow House’s Lead & Pass Bipartisan STOP Act
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered remarks on the Senate floor today discussing the opioid epidemic gripping Ohio—and our country—and his bipartisan bill that will give law enforcement the tools they need to help identify and stop synthetic opioids from being shipped into the U.S. The Synthetics Trafficking & Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act is Portman-authored legislation designed to help combat addiction on the front end by giving law enforcement the tools to identify and stop dangerous synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil from being shipped through our borders through the Postal Service to drug traffickers here in the United States. Today the House of Representatives passed the House version of the STOP Act by a bipartisan vote of 353-52.
A full transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.
“Today I come back to the floor of the Senate to talk about the opioid crisis that has gripped the country and my state of Ohio. I want to focus on the issue of fentanyl. This is the most deadly of the drugs now. It is causing the most overdoses at a time when we have an unprecedented number of overdoses. Fentanyl is a synthetic form of heroin, of opioids, and it is coming through the mail. It’s coming mostly from one country, China. It is the poison that has contributed more in the last few years to the rise in opioid use than anything else. Over the past week we’ve made some significant process in pushing back against fentanyl, and I want to report on that today. The U.S. House of Representatives is going to take up legislation called the STOP Act that we have been working on here in the Senate
on for a couple of years. I’m very pleased about that. I suspect the vote today will be bipartisan. I suspect it will pass the House.
“I also want to report that here in the Senate we’ve had a breakthrough in the last week. Not only have we negotiated something with the House that is, in my view, an improvement from the legislation that had passed the House Ways & Means Committee a couple of weeks ago, but also in the Senate Finance Committee this week, we had a markup and had a commitment from the chairman and ranking member of that committee that the Finance Committee will discharge from the finance committee the identical legislation that is likely to pass the House of Representatives today. I want to thank Chairman Orrin Hatch and Ranking Member Ron Wyden for working with us to ensure that we could get this legislation out of committee and on to the floor of the United States Senate as part of whatever we do in terms of the opioid crisis here in the coming days and weeks.
“I also want to, of course, commend my House colleagues for the vote today and the work they’ve done on this, particularly the Ways & Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, Representatives Mike Bishop, Dave Reichert, Bill Pascrell, and John Faso for their efforts on this bill that combats this opioid crisis. My hope is that the bill that passes the House today will be identical to the bill that we’ll take up here on the floor of the United States Senate so that we can ensure that we get this bill to the president for his signature as soon as possible.
“This is an urgent issue. It is not just an important issue, it is an urgent issue. We need to push back and push back hard. This drug fentanyl is so dangerous that a couple of milligrams of it, a few flecks of it, can kill you. Again, it is something that is causing the most overdoses right now, it’s not just affecting those who are overdosing on it, it’s affecting all of us, including our first responders and young children who come in contact with it. The stories are really heartbreaking of kids who are exposed to fentanyl perhaps because somebody left it behind at a party or perhaps because their parents or other family members left it behind and these young children are overdosing and dying. It’s happening in my state and around the country. First responders are being affected. I hear the stories at home, whether it’s a firefighter or whether it’s someone in the health care industry or somebody in law enforcement. The story I’ve mentioned before is about an East Liverpool, Ohio, police officer, who pulls over two suspects, he notices they are spreading white powder around their car trying to hide it. Wisely he puts on gloves and a mask, he makes the arrest, and when he’s back at the police station booking the individuals, not for the traffic violation so much as for the fentanyl, he looks at his shirt and notices a couple of flecks of something white on his shirt, brushes it off like that, his fingers are exposed to the fentanyl. Immediately he falls to the ground and has to be revived by Narcan, not once, not twice, but Chris Green, who is a big guy, 6’2”, 204 pounds, in great shape, four cans of Narcan was necessary to save his life. What would have happened if he had gone home and had those flecks on his shoulder and hugged his kids?
“This is an incredibly dangerous substance and we have to deal with it. Last year law enforcement officials in Massachusetts said they revived a man with two doses of Narcan who said he had only been smoking marijuana. How can this be? Well it’s because fentanyl was mixed in with the marijuana. I heard this last week in Lorain, Ohio. I was there for a meeting of a lot of folks involved with law enforcement. And treatment providers and law enforcement told us a story very much the same. A young man had to be revived by using Narcan. He said, ‘I was just smoking dope, it couldn’t be.’ Sure enough, when they checked it, they found out that the marijuana was laced with fentanyl. It is going into crystal meth. Crystal meth is now a bigger problem in my state of Ohio and we know for a fact it is a bigger problem in part because it is being mixed with fentanyl. The Dayton area recently released its county overdose report. The Dayton area experienced three times as many crystal meth overdose deaths in 2017 as compared to 2016, and, again, they believe fentanyl mixed in with these drugs is the contributing factor.
“The county coroner from Cincinnati said she has now seen fentanyl mixed with cocaine and marijuana as well as a number of other street drugs. It is now the deadliest drug of the opioid epidemic. One of the takeaways from my meetings around the state talking to people about how to push back on fentanyl is a growing consensus that we need to make much more progress in keeping the fentanyl from coming into our communities in the first place. We know, again, that this is what is causing the big increase in overdoses and deaths at a time when we’re doing more back home to address the opioid crisis. If not for fentanyl, I strongly believe we would make be making progress. We’d be seeing a reduction in overdoses.
“This body passed the CARA legislation, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. It’s also passed the CURES legislation, the 21st Century CURES Act. I have been to a few different places in the state where they are using the funding well to do things like quick response teams when somebody is revived with Narcan, this miracle drug that reverses the effects of an overdose. Then to be sure that you’re getting that person into treatment by working with law enforcement, treatment providers, social workers together. And it’s working. In one case, they are using funding from the CARA legislation and 80 percent of the people who they are coming into contact with are going into treatment. That is a tremendous improvement, unfortunately, from what is generally happening which is that very few people are actually going from the Narcan, overdose, saving the person’s life into treatment, we’ve got to deal with that gap. So we’re making progress and yet the fentanyl is sort of overwhelming the system. It’s time for us to figure out how to push back and push back harder.
“Since 2013, in my home city of Cincinnati, we have experienced a 1,000 percent increase in fentanyl deaths. In the first five months of this year more than 90 percent of the drugs seized by law enforcement contained fentanyl. Most of the drugs that we talked about pushing back against, think of cocaine, think of heroin, even crystal meth, come in over land, mostly across the southern border from Mexico. What law enforcement tells us and the intelligence community tells us is that fentanyl comes in primarily by the U.S. mail system. Instead of coming over land—and the need to secure our southern border is clear, partly because of that—here we have a situation where this drug is coming in through our own federal agency, the United States mail service. They tell us it comes primarily from one country, China. It is made in a lab in China and shipped here.
“We spent about 18 months studying this issue. We went undercover and contacted a lot of different websites, and they all told us the same thing, which is if you’re going to buy from us, ship it by U.S. mail. If it comes by U.S. mail, we can guarantee delivery. If it is not through U.S. mail, we’re not sure we can guarantee it. Why is that? Because this body, after the 9/11 tragic incidences, decided to tighten up packages coming into our country. So we required the private carriers, think of FedEx, UPS, DHL and others to provide law enforcement data about the packages: where it was from, what was in it and where it’s going. They had to provide that data electronically and in advance to use analytics to determine what packages were suspect to be able to pull them off the line. I’ve been to those facilities where this happens. It’s very impressive. It’s also very dangerous. These packages, once identified, have to be taken into a room where there are precautions taken, but the United States Post Office was not required, 16 years ago, to provide that information. Instead, the legislation left the decision up to the Postal Service and Secretary of the Treasury, leaving it clear in the legislative history that Congress considered it a problem but wanted to give the post office time to look into it. That decision never happened and the Postal Service was never required to collect data on its packages. So here we are 16 years later, the Post Office doesn’t have that requirement and these other ways that you could mail into the United States do have that requirement. Guess where the traffickers go?
“The Post Office in the last year or so has begun to step up their efforts. I believe they did it because of our hearings and pressure here from Congress and the legislation called the STOP Act. They now say that they are screening about 36 percent of their packages. Again, that’s a big improvement. However, there are about 500 million packages a year, that means that about 315 million packages that are being looked at is a big improvement, but we still have so many hundreds of millions of packages that are not receiving that kind of screening. In addition, we learned through our hearings and through our investigation that 20 percent of the time when law enforcement had identified a Postal Service package that was suspect, it was not presented to law enforcement. In other words, it went into the community anyway. So clearly we’ve got a big problem. We’re not screening adequately. We’re not providing the information for enough packages and we’re not giving law enforcement the tools they need to do their job. With regard to the private carriers, it’s 100 percent. It’s required.
“The legislation we’re proposing is to tell the Post Office, yes, this poison has to be stopped in every way we possibly can. This is a crisis. It is something that we want you to address. So it says that by 2020 we have to have 100 percent of packages screened and we have to give law enforcement the tools that they need. Law enforcement is, of course, desperate to get this information. If they have the information, they can help. They can help to keep these packages out of our country. They can also help to raise the price. Some packages that are stopped, of course, would have otherwise gone to a P.O. box or someone’s home or abandoned warehouse and been distributed. There have been packages found in my state of Ohio that have been seized that could poison hundreds of thousands of people, kill hundreds of thousands of people. There was a package found recently in Nebraska that could have killed millions of people. So in a relatively small quantity, this is incredibly powerful. Now we will able to get them offline and at a minimum be able to raise the cost.
“One of the reasons that fentanyl has taken over and pushed out some of these other drugs, and by the way, it’s 50 times more powerful than heroin, one reason is because it’s relatively inexpensive. This will raise the price and reduce the volume and help to be able to save lives. We have over one-third of the United States Senate as cosponsors of this legislation, including Senator Hatch and Senator Wyden. Again, I appreciate their work and support on this. We have about half the House of Representatives that have supported the STOP Act on the other side of the chamber. It’s time for us to actually take the next step, pass this legislation, get it in place and immediately tell countries like China if you want to send packages to us, you’ve got to provide this information. We have done everything we can in other ways to encourage China to crack down on these labs, these evil scientists that are making this product and will continue to do that. We’re taking other steps, of course, to deal with this issue in terms of increased prevention and education efforts. That’s in the CARA legislation. There’s $10 million right now available for the administration to come up with a national media campaign that I would strongly support. They already started a smaller media campaign with the private sector. I support that as well. We need to push back every way we can letting people know the dangers, including the fact that any street drug you take now potentially can have deadly consequences, including this fentanyl.
“We need to do more in terms of getting people into treatment. This is a disease and needs to be treated as such. We’re not going to be able to make progress, ultimately, unless we take people who are already addicted, get them into the treatment and longer-term recovery they need. Longer-term recovery is funded by CARA and CURES. This is the first time Congress has done this. This is important because if you get people into a longer-term recovery program, sober housing and group discussion, helping to support them, you have a much higher likelihood of somebody getting clean, being successful, being able to get on track, getting back with their family and their job.
“Finally, we’ve got to do more in terms of helping law enforcement and again, that’s partly what we’re doing here, giving them the tools to be able to stop some of this poison from coming in in the first place. So I am encouraged with the progress we’ve made just in the last week. We now have a House bill that’s being voted on as I speak. We now have a Senate bill that has been agreed to be reported out of committee coming on to the floor. They’re identical. They both do the job. They both tell the Post Office we’ve got to change behavior. By the way, in terms of the Post Office, someone told me today that the Postal Union was concerned about this legislation. I would encourage you to talk to rank and file mail carriers, postal carriers, and ask them what they think. They don’t want to be carrying this poison into our communities. They don’t want to be potentially exposed to this poison should a package leak because of the danger of it. They agree, the people I talked to, that we absolutely have to crack down on this. We’re not asking the Post Office to do it alone. We’re providing funding to Customs and Border Protection to be there with them. The postal inspectors, local law enforcement are desperate to ensure we can do this because they’re tired of it. They’re tired of seeing this stuff just come in like an avalanche coming into our country and creating all these problems across the board in our communities, every sector of our community being affected. People are desperate for solutions because they acknowledge the problem.
“I had a tele-town hall meeting last week here in Washington where I call in and speak to thousands of Ohioans at once. We do this on a monthly basis. We have for the last few years been asking, among our survey questions, one about opioids. It’s a very simple question. It says, ‘have you been directly affected, has anybody you know been directly affected by this opioid crisis?’ Unbelievably, we have gotten typically about 50 percent of the people on the call, again these are thousands of people randomly selected, saying ‘yes, my family or someone I know has been directly affected by opioids.’ At the call last week, two-thirds, two-thirds of the people on the call said they had been directly affected or someone they know has been directly affected. That’s why people are desperate for a solution because it’s affecting them. It’s affecting their lives. It’s affecting their families. It’s affecting our communities. It’s affecting every single aspect of our community, the foster care system, the prison system, the court system. It’s time for us to step up and do more. Yes, prevention, treatment, longer-term recovery but also helping law enforcement to be able to push back, to stop some of this poison from coming into our communities in the first place. Let’s pass the STOP Act to give law enforcement the tools they need against this new scourge, this epidemic, and by doing so we will save lives.”