To catch mass killer, focus on fentanyl shipments

Published 11:38 am Friday, January 19, 2018

With people across the country dying at the rate of 53 a day from overdoses of fentanyl and similar compounds — now the leading killers in the opioid epidemic — efforts to stop this scourge ought to come from every corner of the federal government.

But even as President Donald Trump has declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency, some agencies have failed to act as if it is one.

Just last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama administration policy on marijuana, signaling that the Justice Department may prosecute people selling or using the drug. Regardless of your views on marijuana, deploying limited federal resources to prosecute pot cases amid a raging opioid epidemic is like telling firefighters to inspect smoke detector batteries in one home while the house next door is engulfed in flames.

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Meanwhile, the U.S. Postal Service could be doing more to intercept packages of illicit fentanyl coming from abroad. The Postal Service has moved at a lethargic pace to get much needed advance data from foreign countries that could cut exports of fentanyl, which is often mixed with or sold in place of heroin, to lethal effect.

For reasons that are unclear, the State Department, Justice Department and the president have had only limited success in getting China, the main source for fentanyl entering the United States, to assist in choking off the supply.

Sessions applauded the Chinese last week for restricting two chemical ingredients for fentanyl, an important move. But the Chinese government has failed to arrest two Chinese nationals, indicted by the U.S. last October as large distributors of fentanyl to Americans. Indictments aren’t worth much if the criminals remain at large.

Much of the fentanyl, which can be ordered on the Internet, comes into this country from China and Mexico often in small packages via private shippers and the U.S. mail. Customs and Border Protection officers, looking to intercept illegal shipments, now have to go through bags and bins of parcels manually, a daunting task.

The Postal Service could more easily spot fentanyl if it had some basic data — who and where the package is coming from and the recipient’s name and address — in advance. That would “aid in targeting shipments,” a top Customs official told a Senate hearing last May.

Although a federal law has required private shippers to provide advance electronic data since 2002, the Postal Service’s participation was left up to the postmaster general and leaders of another Cabinet department. More than 15 years later, the Postal Service still doesn’t demand this advance data from all countries.

Since 2016, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and a bipartisan coalition that has grown to 29 senators and 252 House members have pushed a commonsense measure to require that all countries provide this electronic data.

The president’s commission on opioids supports it, too.

The Postal Service’s response? In testimony prepared for the Senate hearing, a top official said that it “agrees with the goal” of the measure, but that requiring all nations to provide this data immediately is “impractical” and could cost as much as $4.8 billion over 10 years.

Why not start with maximum tracking of mail from China and any other countries that appear to be significant sources of synthetic opioids?

Nor has the U.S. given foreign countries a hard deadline to provide this potentially life-saving information. The best the Postal Service could offer was that it’s “seeing substantial data” from China. It would not answer our questions about what percentage of Chinese mail comes with advance data.

“How many more Americans have to die before our government gets its act together . to keep this poison out of our communities?” Portman asked officials at the hearing.

Good question.

Deaths from drug overdoses have now far outstripped the toll from car crashes or guns, once the leading causes of accidental deaths.

In fact, for two years in a row, skyrocketing deaths from drug overdoses have dragged down how long Americans are expected to live.

According to several national polls over the past two years, 49% of Americans, an astounding number, said they know someone who has been addicted to prescription painkillers. Yet according to the same polls, more than half said it is a major problem but not an emergency.

Perhaps that’s because the deaths don’t occur as mass tragedies but in an unending stream of individual casualties in cities, towns and rural communities across the country.

Galvanizing the public would be helpful. More important is galvanizing the federal government into emergency mode to deal with an elusive mass killer, fentanyl, that is claiming the lives of more than two people every hour.