On Senate Floor, Portman Urges Senate to Pass the STOP Act to Help Combat the Opioid Epidemic
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.
A full transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.
“The opioid issue, sadly, is gripping my state of Ohio in a way that has caused us to have more deaths by opioids than any other cause of accidental death. But it is not just Ohio. It’s an epidemic because nationally now, it’s the number one cause of accidental death, and for Americans under age 50, it is the number one cause of death, period. This makes it the worst drug epidemic that we’ve faced in this country, worse than you recall back In the 1980s and 1990s when we were very concerned about cocaine and other drugs, this has become the worst drug epidemic that we have ever faced.
“We had a tele-town hall meeting this week where I call several thousand Ohioans; we had about 20,000 people on the call at any one time. And during that call, we have a survey question that asks about opioids. It asks a very simple question: do you know someone who has been personally affected? Have you or do you know someone who has been personally affected by this opioid epidemic? The numbers were shocking this week. Typically it’s more than half of the callers who say yes. That’s how bad it is in Ohio. This week it was 66 percent, two-thirds of the callers, thousands of people in Ohio, reported back from a tele-town hall, so it is not a self-selected group. It’s people who called in to talk about various issues. 66 percent say they know someone who has been directly affected by this opioid addiction issue.
“It is unfolded in three waves. The first wave was really prescription drugs. This was back in the late 1990s into the 2000s. There were pill mills. Other states, Kentucky and West Virginia were hit hard. This was medication that was being abused in many cases, leading to an addiction. The second wave was the heroin wave, which is when heroin became readily available, and was less expensive actually, than prescription drugs, and many people turned to heroin. That heroin led to a lot more overdoses and other issues, including diseases associated with the use of needles, Hepatitis C and others. And now there’s a new wave. And the new wave, sadly, is even more deadly than the first two. And that’s what’s called synthetic opioids or synthetic heroin; the one that you probably heard of is called fentanyl. Sometimes carfentanil also which is even more powerful. It is truly at epidemic levels in my state and it is being made worse by this new wave of synthetic heroin.
“Now, there are other drugs as well that are affecting us in our country. In my own state in some regions of Ohio, crystal meth now coming up from Mexico is creating a bigger problem. Cocaine is certainly an issue. But it is clear as I’ve looked at the statistics and traveled the state that our number one issue is opioids—and that synthetic opioids, 50 times more potent than heroin, are the new face of the opioid epidemic. Fentanyl was involved in about 37 percent of the deaths in Ohio as recently as 2015. By 2016, it was responsible for 58 percent of the overdose deaths. So from 37 percent to 58 percent in one year. We don’t have all the numbers yet for 2017, but unfortunately, the numbers that we do have from various regions of the state indicate that 2017 is going to be just as bad, if not worse. Columbus, Ohio, as an example has seen a staggering increase in opioid overdoses due to fentanyl. Two-thirds of the county’s 2017 overdose deaths were due to fentanyl. Two-thirds.
“I’m told by law enforcement that fentanyl, again a drug so deadly that a few flakes of it can kill you, has also been sprinkled into other drugs. I’ve talked to recovering addicts who tell me their stories about finding out that they were actually taking fentanyl and they thought they were taking another drug. It’s been sprinkled into other street drugs, according to law enforcement, and some of these recovering addicts I talked to, including cocaine, even including marijuana, including heroin. Just last week there were two men in the Toledo area who were arrested for drug conspiracy with the intent to distribute. A little more than half a pound of fentanyl was seized upon their arrest. This half a pound of fentanyl would be equivalent to about one cup of fentanyl—small enough to fit in a Ziploc baggie in your kitchen. And yet, that one drug seizure of one cup was enough fentanyl, according to the experts, to kill 160,000 people. Remember, just a few flakes of this can kill you. That’s more than half the population of Toledo where this arrest took place. That’s how dangerous these drugs are.
“Fentanyl comes mostly from laboratories in China and mostly it’s shipped to the United States through a federal agency—that’s the United States Postal Service. It’s unbelievable to me that we are not doing more to push back on this, given that it’s actually a government entity through which the experts say most of this fentanyl is coming in, primarily from one country, primarily through the Post Office. We looked into this in an 18-month investigation in the subcommittee I chair. Our investigators revealed just how easy it was to purchase fentanyl online and have it shipped to the United States. The drugs can be found through a simple Google search, and overseas sellers essentially guarantee delivery if the fentanyl is sent through the United States Postal Service.
“By the way, I’ve spent time talking to Postal Service employees about this, including back home in Ohio. They don’t want to be any part of this. Number one, it’s very dangerous—you can imagine—if these packages leak, I talked earlier about the dangers of fentanyl. People can be exposed to it, overdose themselves, even die. Also, they don’t want to be any part of it because they don’t want to see these poisons coming into our country that they’re delivering, going to an empty warehouse or going to a Post Office box, or even delivered to someone’s home, which, based on our investigation, we found all three. We found in several instances that people had received fentanyl through the mail and then had died of overdoses. We were able to track that by hearing who had died and being able to track some of the payments and shipments. So there’s no question that people are receiving fentanyl at their home, taking it, and dying. No one wants to be part of that.
“Why is the Post Office the preferred way for these drugs to come? Why do the traffickers say, ‘if you send it through the Post Office, then delivery is guaranteed’? It’s really pretty simple. The U.S. Post Office is exempt from a federal law that was passed post-9/11. In 2002, Congress passed a law that required the private carriers, FedEx or DHL or UPS to get advanced electronic data from their customers, which would then be provided to law enforcement that would tell law enforcement where the package is from, what’s in the package, and where it is going. With that information, using big data analytics, Customs and Border Protection has been able to identify suspicious packages because they have this data on the packages coming in, every package, 100 percent of the packages. They then are able to pull these packages offline, test them, and not have this poison come into our community. The same is not true, unfortunately, with regard to the U.S. Postal Service.
“Until we began this congressional investigation and began to push the Postal Service, there was very little electronic data being provided on any packages from the Postal Service. How can law enforcement possibly find the suspect packages without having this data and without having good detection equipment to be able to find it? It’s like finding a needle in the haystack. But with this information, they’re able to be much more effective as they have been with these private carriers, DHL, UPS, FedEx and so on. Under pressure from Congress, over the last year or so, the Post Office has been getting some data on the international packages. Last year they received data on about 36 percent of their package, based on the testimony that they have given us, meaning that the United States received about 318 million packages without any of the screening, without any of this data on it at all. So 36 percent is an improvement, but still, the vast majority of packages are not being stopped. By the way, 20 percent of the packages that were identified by law enforcement as being problematic based on the amount of electronic data that was provided, 20 percent of those packages were not presented to law enforcement based on the testimony that we received. Finally, we learned that even though 36 percent of the packages had some sort of data, much of that data was not useful. It was not decipherable, not helpful for law enforcement. So we’ve got a long way to go and we’ve got a crisis in front of us. It’s time for Congress to act because it’s clear to me that the Postal Service needs this congressional mandate to more expeditiously close this loophole that’s allowing this deadly poison to continue coming into our homes, onto our streets. Again, this is the number one killer in my home state of Ohio. And when you look nationally, this is the new face of the opioid epidemic.
“There’s legislation to deal with this. It’s called the STOP Act, a bipartisan bill I Introduced with Senator Amy Klobuchar. She spoke earlier on the floor. We talked earlier about getting this legislation passed. This legislation will close the loophole. It will ensure that our international mail screening takes place, and it will stop some of this deadly fentanyl from coming into our communities. It will simply hold the Post Office to the same standard as private mail carriers and require that within one year, they get electronic data on all packages entering the United States. It’s fair. It’s common sense. And it’s going to make a big difference in our communities. By the way, that’s why about one-third of the Senate and about half of the House of Representatives have already signed on as cosponsors of our legislation. It’s bipartisan. It’s bicameral. The president’s opioid commission—you remember President Trump asked a bunch of experts to come together led by Governor Chris Christie to have a commission to look at this opioid issue and to come up with recommendations. One of the recommendations: pass the STOP Act, keep some of this fentanyl out of our country.
“Last week the House Ways & Means Committee took up our legislation. And I appreciate them doing that. Sadly, what they reported out was a weaker version of the STOP Act than is necessary to be able to address this problem. Their version gives the Post Office, as an example, four years to be able to implement these changes—at a time when this is a crisis. Remember, it’s increasing every year to the point of being the number one cause of death in my state and in many other states. It also only requires them to get data on 95 percent of packages, not 100 percent eventually. It also gives the federal government the ability to waive the requirement altogether if it is, and I quote, ‘in the national security interest of the United States.’ I’d hate to see them use that waiver. How could it possibly be the national security interest of the United States of America not to have information to give to law enforcement to stop something this deadly from coming into our country? That makes no sense.
“I know from what I’ve seen and heard in Ohio that we need this and we need it now. We need this data on all foreign packages. That is in our national security interest, not setting lower screening standards or creating a loophole to evade accountability. I’m encouraged that the Ways & Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady has acknowledged these concerns. And by the way, having spoken to him, he has a passion for addressing this issue. I know he is personally committed to coming up with legislation that works. We need to resolve these differences, get this legislation to the floor of the House and the Senate, and get it passed so that we can begin to stop the fentanyl flooding into our country.
“It is at the forefront of the epidemic we see around the country. It’s taking lives. It’s sidelining workers. It’s causing crime, the number-one cause of crime in my state is related to opioids. Often it’s the criminal acts that are committed, such as burglary, shoplifting, and fraud to be able to pay for the habit. It’s crippling communities. It’s breaking families apart. It’s doing so at an alarming rate. This morning we had testimony in the Senate Committee on Finance regarding rural health care, and some of the providers were talking about the fentanyl crisis. I asked them what they’re doing about it and how it’s going, particularly with regard to these kids who are born with what’s called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, meaning they are born to an addicted mother and they have to be taken through withdrawal as a baby. These little babies you could hold in the palm of your hand having to go through withdrawal. And they told me the foster care system in their states is overwhelmed. Mine is in Ohio. We have more kids under the state supervision in foster care than ever. We can’t find foster families fast enough because so many of the families are unable to take care of these kids. There are more grandparents and great-grandparents than ever having to step forward to take care of these kids. It’s affecting our communities in so many ways.
“The STOP Act alone isn’t going to solve all of these problems. We get that. We passed legislation around here in the last year and a half to increase prevention and education, to increase treatment and longer-term recovery. That’s very important and we need to do more of it. We have new legislation to take that to the next level. But combatting this crisis at its source by making it harder for drugs to enter our country is certainly a step we can and should take. It’s common sense. At the very least, it will reduce supply and help to drive up the cost of this drug because one of our problems is, this drug is so powerful but it’s also so relatively inexpensive. We have an opportunity with the STOP Act to make a real difference for families and every single state represented in this chamber. If you’re not already a cosponsor, I hope you’ll join us in this effort. If you are a cosponsor and support this, I hope you’ll talk to your leadership on both sides of the aisle. Let’s get this to the floor and get a vote. Let’s be sure we’re doing everything we possibly can to stop this poison.”