STOP Act Will Help Keep More Synthetic Drugs Out of U.S.—Combat Influx of Fentanyl Into Our Communities

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 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 to drug traffickers here in the United States.

Portman also discussed the need for Congress to pass the STOP Act as drafted in the Senate. Yesterday, the House of Representatives Ways & Means Committee considered a weaker alternative to the Senate's STOP Act that would eliminate the real, enforceable, and immediate requirement that the Postal Service provide law enforcement with the information they need to identify and stop the shipment of deadly synthetic drugs into our communities. 

A full transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.

“I want to first commend my colleague from Kansas for his passion for our veterans and for his hard work on legislation that’s really going to help in Ohio and around the country to ensure they have the care that they deserve. And also his mention of Senator McCain who is a true national hero and now has a documentary about him on HBO that some of us saw earlier today which soon will be available for everyone to see. It’s very powerful.

“We heard earlier from one of my colleagues from Indiana who talked about the fact that this is National Police Week. A number of us have come to the floor to talk about our incredible men and women in uniform back home who protect us every day through their dedication, their public service, and it’s appropriate to commend them. I will say that as I talk to police officers here from Ohio this week, one issue came up again and again that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. And that is the influx of synthetic opioids, like fentanyl and the effect it’s having on our law enforcement community—and our first responders in general—and for that matter all of our citizens.

"What they told me was, ‘you know, this is the issue that’s creating so much crime in our communities. This is the issue that’s filling our courtrooms and our jails.’ One police officer I met with this week is a corrections officer in a jail in one of our urban areas in Ohio, and I asked him, ‘just give me an estimate, what percent of the inmates in this jail are there because of the drug crisis and specifically the opioid issue?’ He thought for a minute. He said probably 90 percent. Some are there because of selling drugs. Some of them are there, though, because they committed a crime while they were trying to get the money to be able to pay for their habit. So it’s shoplifting and it’s fraud and it’s burglary. And this issue is now everywhere.

“The last year for which we have good information would be 2016. We have a lot of information nationally on that. And 2016 was the worst year on record in terms of overdose deaths attributable to these synthetic drugs coming into our country. But guess what? Almost certainly 2017 is worse. As one example, the coroner for Franklin County, Ohio, the Columbus area in Ohio, our fastest growing city, recently released their 2017 overdose report for the county. Franklin County had 520 overdose deaths in 2017. That’s a 47 percent increase from 2016. So 2016 was the worst year on record. 2017 had almost a 50 percent increase in overdose deaths. Sadly, by the way, those overdose deaths are on track again this year to reach a record. Two-thirds of those overdose deaths in Columbus, Ohio, Franklin County involved fentanyl, which is the synthetic opioid that’s overtaking our communities in Ohio. Think about that. Two-thirds of those overdose deaths last year in Columbus, Ohio, were due to fentanyl.

“Just last week a Cleveland man was sentenced to more than 11 years in federal prison for selling fentanyl that resulted in a 46-year-old Ohio man’s death. Earlier this month, a man in Lorain, Ohio was convicted of selling fentanyl resulting in a 23-year-old’s death. This drug and the opioid crisis knows no bounds. It’s in every age group. It’s in every zip code. It is everywhere. Unbelievably, this drug, this fentanyl, again a synthetic form of heroin, synthetic form of opioids, we are told by the experts is coming into our country through the U. S. mail system. To me this is shocking and it should be something that we can do something about. This is a federal agency after all. So unlike other drugs, let’s say heroin or even crystal meth, which tend to come over land, mostly from Mexico, this drug primarily is coming through the United States mail system from primarily one country, China. Laboratories in China where some evil scientist is mixing this deadly brew and then sending it through the U. S. mail into our communities. It’s being shipped directly into your community in small packages. These are the deadliest drugs we’ve ever experienced. And they’re being shipped directly through a federal agency.

“What is fentanyl? Well, it’s 50 times more powerful than heroin. It’s inexpensive. It’s readily available now in many communities. It’s the new scourge killing more people in my state of Ohio last year than any other drug. And we need to do all we can to stop more of these poisons from entering our communities. And, at the very least, if we can’t stop it all, let’s raise the price because the cost of this drug is so inexpensive and its being so powerful is one of the things that’s driving these overdoses and these deaths. And it’s not just overdoses.

“It’s people whose lives are getting off track, families breaking apart, community dysfunction, people leaving work, the babies being born with this neonatal abstinence syndrome. They have to go through withdrawal, little babies you can hold in your two hands. It’s affecting our communities in so many ways.

“There’s a new study out showing of the men out of the work force all together, probably eight and a half million men, roughly half of them are taking pain medication on a daily basis when two-thirds say it’s prescription drug. What does this mean? It’s affecting one of the big issues, which is a lack of a workforce. Here you have millions of Americans who are off track because of this issue. So, yes, it is tragic and unbelievable that more than 60,000 Americans a year are dying from overdoses. But it’s even worse than that. That’s the tip of the iceberg in a way. There are so many other aspects of this that are affecting the communities that we represent here in this chamber.

“With regard to fentanyl, this new scourge, we conducted an 18-month investigation in what’s called the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which I chair. And we did this because we were hearing more and more about fentanyl. We wanted to look into how fentanyl is being shipped into the United States, what can be done at the federal level to stop it. The investigation revealed just how easy it is to purchase fentanyl online and have it shipped to the United States. So easy in fact that we found most of the overseas providers essentially guaranteed delivery if you use the U.S. mail system. Through a simple google search, our staff found hundreds of websites, many affiliated with Chinese labs, openly advertising fentanyl for sale. We went undercover using an investigator from the Department of Homeland Security to help us find some of these websites. We found that in several cases, seven different cases, individuals who received fentanyl through some of these websites, we were able to find that they had died from an overdose shortly after receiving their fentanyl.

“We were able to find that, again, these sellers would tell you to ship the drugs through the Postal Service. Not a private carrier like FedEx, or DHL, or UPS, or any other private carrier. And this is because, as we have learned in our investigation, the Postal Service, unlike these private carriers, is not required to have what’s called advanced electronic data as part of the package. In other words, law enforcement is not given information on these packages. The data that is in this advanced electronic information is the name and address of the sender, the name and address of the person who is receiving the package, and what the contents of the package are. How does this help? Well, this gives law enforcement the ability to use big data, find out what region it’s coming from. Again, if there is a region in China that is sending a lot of this poison, they’ll know that. Where it’s going. If it’s going to a particular Post Office box where they have reason to believe that it might be suspect or perhaps it’s going to an abandoned warehouse. The information about what’s in the package obviously is very interesting to Customs and Border Protection. They need this help. Why? Because they can’t otherwise identify suspicious packages.

“There are 900 million packages a year coming into the United States through the mail system. 900 million packages. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. Yes, we need better detection equipment, and we have actually passed legislation recently to do that. We have additional legislation to hire more individuals to be able to help detect these packages when they have opioids contained within them, but this advanced information that you can have on the package is so incredibly important, and it’s the reason why the traffickers are saying ‘don’t send it through a private carrier. Send it through our own government agency because we think we can guarantee delivery there.’ It’s a glaring loophole in our screening process and it’s a national security threat. It’s a clear example where Congress ought to come together on a bipartisan basis and enact federal policies to fix this flaw.

“Shortly after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Congress did pass a law in this regard, and the law did require all private carriers to obtain advanced electronic data on all international packages entering the United States and required them to share that data with law enforcement. The concern was not just contraband or opioids. It was also explosives. They passed that legislation here in Congress because they knew that it was important to have law enforcement get that information. With regard to the Post Office, they made it optional. Congress required the postmaster general and the secretary of the treasury to determine if the post office should also collect such data. Now, this was 17 years ago. That determination was never made. They did not follow the law. From one administration to the next, to the next, to the next. No determination of course has resulted in no data requirement for the Postal Service. Again, that was in 2002. For about 14 years, the Postal Service sat by and did nothing on this issue, knowing that this was a loophole, this was an opening in the law for, again, traffickers and others to be able to send things into our country. To me, that’s unacceptable.

“In the last couple of years, after pressure from Congress and, frankly, our investigation that I talked about earlier and the hearings we held talking about this issue, in the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the Postal Service did actually start to do what, in my view, they should have done starting 16 years ago. But unfortunately what they are doing is not nearly enough. They had begun getting some data on some international packages, but the efforts are inadequate. Private carriers, 100 percent of their packages have to have it and do, and they provide it to law enforcement. The U.S. Postal Service last year began an effort to get more of this advanced electronic data. But they received it, based on testimony they provided to us, on only about 36 percent of the international packages. This means that the United States received more than 318 million packages last year that had no screening on them. No information for law enforcement to be able to identify the package. We also found that the quality of the data that was provided by the Postal Service was inadequate in many cases and therefore not helpful to law enforcement. That is based on testimony again before our committee. Even when the Postal Service conducted a pilot program to screen for drugs, they only presented 80 percent of the packages targeted by Customs and Border Protection for inspection. So even when they did have information on it and law enforcement said ‘I want that package’, again using big data and figuring out what might be a suspicious package, only 80 percent of them were even delivered to law enforcement out of the 36 percent that had electronic data. So the other 20 percent of those suspicious packages were allowed to go into circulation, into our communities without having any screening.

“Frankly, it’s been a challenge to get the Post Office to address this problem on their own. It’s 900 million packages a year. They have funding problems, I get that. But, folks, this is a crisis. It is a true epidemic. It’s the number one killer in my state. It’s time for Congress to act. People are dying every day because of these synthetic drugs. How many more people have to die before our own Postal Service takes the measures that we know can be taken to be able to stop these poisons?

“The STOP Act is a bipartisan bill I introduced with Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, that will close this loophole and therefore help stop these deadly drugs from entering our communities. Senator Klobuchar was on the floor earlier this afternoon and wanted to speak about the legislation. She had to catch a plane to get back to her home state of Minnesota, but I appreciate her partnership on this issue and her promotion of us dealing with this issue here on the floor of the United States Senate. The STOP Act is very simple and common sense. It’s going to hold the U.S. Postal Service to the same standard as these private mail carriers we talked about and require that they get advanced electronic data, not on 36 percent but on 100 percent of packages entering the United States, and good data, and then present that to law enforcement.

“We’re not punishing the Postal Service. We’re forcing them to jump through unnecessary hoops. We’re simply saying that, given the crisis we face, the U.S. Postal Service, a federal agency, should require the same types of advanced electronic data from foreign countries that private mail carriers do, and we give the Postal Service a year to do it. By the way, when I talk to mail carriers about this issue, when I talk to postal inspectors about this issue, certainly when I talk to Customs and Border Protection individuals about this issue, they all agree. Who wouldn’t? They have families, too. They understand. This issue needs to be addressed and it needs to be addressed urgently. By the way, the United States of America provides this advanced electronic data on 90 percent of our packages that we send to other countries, so we’re not asking for something that we’re not doing. It makes sense all around the world. It makes sense here, and it will help save lives.

 

“33 of my Senate colleagues, 20 republicans and 12 democrats, one independent have signed on as cosponsors of this legislation. The presiding officer today is from West Virginia, a state that has been hit really hard, like Ohio. She has a passion for this issue. She knows that we need to do all we can do to stop this poison from coming in. This legislation has the support of a broad cross section of this body. It’s also been endorsed by President Trump’s opioid commission. This was a national commission that he formed to look at answers. This was one of their specific recommendations, the STOP Act, pass it. Just this week, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, reaffirmed her support for this measure.

“The House companion bill has 271 cosponsors—more than half of the United States House of Representatives. By the way, asking every country for this kind of information, this advanced electronic data, is not just common sense, it’s also reasonable. The United States provides that data on nearly all of our packages that go into China, as an example, so why shouldn’t China do that for us? At least one country, Sweden, recently returned packages from China. It did not comply with Swedish postal rules on providing this information, so the Postal Service has already realized they don’t have to accept and deliver packages from foreign posts under treaty obligations it is simply not the case. If a country doesn’t play by our rules, we can simply choose to return their packages. By the way, threatening to do so is all we need to do because these countries will then comply. We have the largest market in the world. We’re the biggest economy in the world. We just have to insist on it.

“China is already starting to recognize the importance of providing this data for access to U.S. Markets. For example, as of early this year when we published our report from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, we have information that China had already provided electronic data on roughly 50 percent of the packages headed to the United States. So this notion that somehow China can’t do it, of course they can. Yesterday, instead of marking up this bipartisan STOP Act I talked about, the STOP Act legislation, the House Ways & Means Committee considered a weaker alternative to our bill. Apparently, they were hearing from some at the Postal Service who don’t want Congress to require them to get this electronic data within one year, which we think is not just doable but reasonable. They don’t want Congress to put in place penalties if they don’t get that data. Our legislation, yes, has penalties. The Postal Service doesn’t mind if congress simply recommends that they get the data, but remember, Congress recommended that way back in 2002. That was 16 years ago. Until very recently, just the last couple of years, the Postal Service did nothing to provide that crucial information. Unfortunately, the weaker alternative approved by the committee yesterday would eliminate the real, enforceable, and immediate requirement that the Postal Service provide law enforcement with the information they need to identify and stop the shipment of deadly sympathetic drugs into our communities.

“In particular, the STOP Act requires that within one year, the Postal Service secure electronic data on 100 percent of packages, again, entering the United States and transmit that data to law enforcement, to Customs and Border Protection. The version reported out yesterday gives the Postal Service four years, four years. Remember, this is the number one killer in my state and many states. Last year, increased from the year before, this year looks worse again. We can’t wait four years. We don’t have to. The version they reported out also only requires 95 percent of the packages to have that data. In addition, this alternative that was reported out yesterday to the STOP Act actually gives the federal government the authority to waive the requirements in the STOP Act that it gets advanced electronic data if it, and I quote, ‘is in the national security interests of the United States.’ They can waive it altogether. I’m struggling to think of a time when knowing less about what is coming into our country is in our national security interests.

“As our PSI report, Permanent Subcommittee Investigations report from January makes clear, there are hundreds of millions of packages coming into this country through the Postal Service every year with little or no screening at all. That’s frightening. This loophole is allowing drug traffickers to exploit our own federal government, and we can’t allow this scenario to continue. The organization of Americans for Securing All Packages, ASAP, issued a statement this week urging the Ways & Means Committee to, and I quote, ‘reject this weakened alternative and pass the STOP Act, a bill with 271 bipartisan cosponsors.’ Just earlier today, Shatterproof, another addiction advocacy group fighting against the opioid addiction issue, issued a similar statement calling on Congress to pass the STOP Act. Not the watered down version.

“I want to say today on the floor that I very much appreciate the fact that Ways & Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady has acknowledged these concerns and has committed to working with us to resolve these differences during the legislative process. I know him. I know he is a passionate advocate of addressing this issue. He wants to reverse the opioid epidemic, and he wants this to work. So I look forward to working with him. I particularly appreciate the House co-authors of the STOP Act. Representative Mike Bishop, Representative Bill Pascrell. I talked to Mr. Bishop today, and I know his passion to deal with this issue as well.

“The coalition for support for the STOP Act, by the way, also includes the Fraternal Order of Police. I talked about the fact that police officers understand the dangers of this issue. By the way, to give you an example of how dangerous this issue is to them, it’s not just the overcrowding of our prison system and the courts and the crime that has been committed, it’s a personal danger to them as law enforcement officers. In East Liverpool, Ohio, a police officer pulled over two men for a traffic violation. He noticed there was a powdery substance in the car. Being alert, he put on his mask and his gloves, arrested these two gentlemen because the powdery substance was fentanyl. They had stupidly tried to spread it around the car. He took them down to the station. He booked them. After he booked them, he was talking to his fellow officers, and he looked down on his shirt and notice add few white flecks on his shirt. So, as anyone would do, he took his hand and flicked the pieces. Exposure to his fingers caused him to drop unconscious on the floor. This is a big guy, 6’2", over 200 pounds, in good shape. He overdoses and nearly died. As his police chief said, if we hadn’t been there to apply Narcan, not once, twice, but four, five, six times, he wouldn’t have made it. Think if he had gone home to hug his kid without brushing those flecks off his shoulder.

“It’s appropriate that the police organizations around the country are strongly in support of this STOP Act. But so is the National Association of State EMS Officials, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, anti-opioid groups like Shatterproof I talked about, but also Stop Addiction Fatality Addiction Group. Others have said this is crazy. We have to stop this stuff from coming into our community and at the minimum get the price up. Because part of the reason it is spreading so much is because it’s inexpensive. So there is a strong, bipartisan consensus that the Senate STOP Act is needed to combat the wave of opioid addiction and overdose deaths on the front end by keeping some of these more deadly drugs from ever entering our communities in the first place. This is a step we can take in the Senate to make accessing these drugs more difficult. The STOP Act will make life a little easier for the people of Ohio and across the country who are increasingly fatally overdosing or being unknowingly exposed to these deadly drugs.

“Of course, this is only one part of combating the opioid epidemic. We understand that. We passed legislation here that I coauthored that increases treatment options, does more in terms of prevention, provides longer-term recovery, helps provide our police officers and other first responders with the Narcan that is so needed to reverse the effects of overdoses. But to my colleagues, this one is common sense. Stopping more of these deadly drugs from ever entering the drug in the first place, raising the price of these drugs will make a difference, and it will save lives. Let’s pass this legislation. Let’s work with the House to be sure it’s legislation that will be effective immediately to be able to stop the increasing danger that these opioids are causing in our communities all around the country.”

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