With an Opioid National Emergency Declaration Looming Congress Considers Steps to Reduce Drug Inflows by International Mail
Following the “first and most urgent recommendation” of the Presidential Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, President Trump has indicated he likely will soon declare a national emergency regarding drug overdoses.
A National Epidemic
In its interim report released on July 31, the Commission emphasizes that 142 Americans die every day from overdoses. From 2002 to 2015 there was a 2.8-fold increase in deaths from opioids, and the trend is accelerating.
In 2015, the last year for which statistics are available, there were 52,404 deaths from drug overdoses, with 33,091, or 63.1 percent, from opioids. The National Center for Health Statistics reported on August 8 that drug overdose deaths in the third quarter of 2016 rose 19 percent from the third quarter of 2015, another sharp quarterly increase in 2016 which is bringing the death total close to 60,000 annually. With an estimated 2.6 million opioid addicts in the U.S., the problem is quite serious and could get much worse.
In calling for the Presidential national emergency declaration, Commission Chair Governor Chris Christie was blunt about the goal, “…to force Congress to focus on funding … (and to) … awaken every American to this simple fact: if this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it will soon.”
A key reason for the epidemic is that it is especially difficult for law enforcement to interdict and control the supply of opioids. Drug dealers and users alike can replenish their suppliers cheaply and easily using the Internet and international mail delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. Highly potent quantities fit in small envelopes.
The problem is so serious that the Congressionally-chartered U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission found in a February report, “Chemical flows from China have helped fuel a fentanyl crisis in the United States, with significant increases in U.S. opioid overdoses, deaths and addiction rates reoccurring over the last several years.” India is also frequently cited as a primary source for illicit fentanyl in the United States.
On February 14, a bipartisan group of Senators led by Robert Portman (R-OH) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act of 2017, a.k.a. The STOP Act.
The measure would require shipments from foreign countries through the U.S. Postal Service to be preceded with electronic data – including who and where it is coming from, who it is going to, where it is going and what is in it, before it crosses the U.S. border. This information will enable U.S. Customs and Border Protection and 46 other federal agencies to better target potentially illegal packages containing dangerous drugs.
The Postal Service would be liable for financial penalties for false or omitted information, including what is provided by foreign postal operators. Its shipments would also become subject to the same regulations, procedures and restrictions as those of private, commercial carriers.
Among those supporting The STOP Act is the 330,000-member Fraternal Order of Police. In a February 27 letter to Senator Portman, Fraternal Order of Police President Chuck Canterbury said, “Unlike packages entering the U.S. through private carriers – such as UPS or FedEx – the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) does not receive advance electronic customs data for the clear majority of foreign mail entering the United States Postal Service.”
He continues, “This legislation will close the loophole and allow CBP to effectively enforce customs laws that will stop the flow of deadly synthetic drugs in our communities …(it) will help prevent more synthetic drugs being trafficked in our communities.”
The Postal Service’s Response
In testimony about The STOP Act on May 25 to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Robert Cintron, Vice President, Network Operations, for the U.S. Postal Service said, “The Postal Service has been a leading proponent of AED (Advanced Electronic Data).” He also outlined steps the Postal Service has been taking to expand AED usage and its priorities in this regard. In addition, he discussed steps being taken to improve employee training and to better work with CBP.
However, the Postal Service is not ready to support The STOP Act.
Mr. Cintron said, “While the Postal Service agrees with the goal of the STOP Act to increase AED, the STOP Act’s blanket requirement that international mail streams from all countries must immediately include AED is impractical. Compliance with the STOP Act would require the suppression of inbound mail to the United States.” He noted this could also provoke other countries to block mail originating in the U.S.
Cintron also raised concerns about the costs, estimating that they could be $1.2 to $4.8 billion over ten years. These concerns have been echoed by the postal labor unions.
He also said, “The Postal Service supports requiring AED for foreign-origin mail. However, unlike the STOP Act, the Postal Service recommends targeting individual countries based on their capacity to provide AED and their relative security risks.”
Concerns have also been voiced within the postal community that national postal operators in many developing countries lack the infrastructure and resources to comply with the advanced data requirement.
While electronic international mail tracking is important for interdicting drugs, it will also help CBP and other agencies to detect foreign-made goods on which duties are not being paid. This could raise significant tax revenue of at least a billion dollars a year. It would also put many U.S. businesses on a more level playing field with foreign competitors.
Whether the President formally declares a national emergency on drug addiction and the opioid use, the crisis will persist and likely dramatically grow in the future. The Presidential Commission will have a more detailed report in the Fall of 2017, which will again intensify public focus on the issue.
Among other recommendations, the Commission advocates, “Support federal legislation to staunch the flow of deadly synthetic opioids through the U.S. Postal Service.” Given all this, the STOP Act is likely to be a top concern to many policymakers soon.
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