Senators warn USPS, CBP fall short on legislation to stop opioids in the mail

The Postal Service and Customs and Border Protection fell short of expectations from Congress last year when it came to stopping illegal opioids from coming into the country through mail and packages.

A year later, two senators remain concerned these agencies haven’t done more to tighten the flow of drugs, such as fentanyl, from coming into the United States, despite championing legislation that gives them the tools to do so.

The Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act Congress passed in 2018 required foreign post offices to include advanced electronic data (AED) on all U.S.-bound packages coming through the Postal Service, starting in January 2020.

CBP, however, has granted waivers to more than 130 countries, giving than an additional year before having to comply with the STOP Act’s data requirements for mail and packages.

CBP officials recently told HSGAC staff that the list of waiver countries is under review, but Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) warn the agency should “exercise restraint and ensure that any waivers issued meet the strict requirements outlined in the STOP Act.”

“Waivers must be a temporary exception,” the senators wrote to the leadership of USPS, CBP, and the State Department. “Otherwise, existing illicit mail traffic will shift to these waiver jurisdictions.”

Paul Steidler, a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, said the U.S. is receiving more advanced electronic data from China, a leading exporter of fentanyl, as well as other countries. However, he said there’s been “very little progress” in terms of meeting full compliance with the STOP Act.

“There are no supply chain bottlenecks when it comes to getting illegal, deadly, synthetic opioids into the United States,” Steidler said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that from April 2020 to April 2021, the U.S. saw the largest recorded number of drug overdose deaths in a 12-month period, with more than 100,000 deaths during that period.

Portman, in an exclusive Fox News interview earlier this month, pointed to a 42% increase in fentanyl seized by CBP as a sign of an escalating overdose problem.

“When you have 100,000 deaths, there’s a lot of other collateral damage. It’s not just about people dying, but it’s about people losing their way in life,” Portman said.

The STOP Act allows agencies to grant countries a one-year exemption to providing advanced electronic data (AED) if they lack the technical capability to send this data to USPSdeliver a low volume of packages to the U.S. and are considered a low-risk country of origin.

However, Portman and Klobuchar said the list of countries receiving waivers includes developed countries and countries with links to international organized crime.

Congress required private shippers to include advanced electronic data on international packages in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. This data includes the package’s sender, recipient, weight and contents, and allows CBP to target high-risk packages.

However, Congress exempted USPS from those same requirements, and as a result, it’s become the preferred method for drug traffickers to ship opioids to the U.S.

“AED technology is not something that’s new or radically different. It’s not something that just got invented. It’s been around for 20 years,” Steidler said. “The U.S. should be helping poorer countries implement systems for this, and it ought to be demanding that other countries – be it China, be it the United Kingdom – that can implement these systems implement them. Because it’s a question of whether our laws are going to be respected or not.”

Portman and Klobuchar, in their letter, also urge the State Department to “aggressively pursue advancing global requirements for AED” through international forums, including the Universal Postal Union and the World Customs Organization.

USPS executives told Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee members last year it saw, at most, two-thirds of international packages meet this data requirement at the beginning of 2020.

Citing disruptions in international mail caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, USPS data showed only 54% of incoming international packages had this data in October 2020.

USPS sees ‘significant’ delays sending international packages

While agencies under the STOP Act have yet to stem the flow of illegal opioids coming through the mail, and recent watchdog report finds USPS, in an effort to comply with the legislation, held up delivery of mail and packages being sent internationally — even though, in some cases, these items had the necessary AED.

The USPS inspector general’s office, in a recent management alert, found “significant operational delays of international outbound packages” at several USPS facilities.

USPS data reviewed by auditors shows that between January and August 2021, nearly 2.9 million pieces of mail and 965,000 packages being sent from the U.S. to an international destination did not have the necessary advanced electronic data.

The IG report find USPS “more stringently enforced standards” related to the STOP Act by early 2021, and by August, began enforcing AED requirements for packages from bulk commercial mailers that were being delivered outside the U.S.

Auditors with the IG office conducted observations at USPS international service centers (ISC) in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Miami between June and September 2021.

The IG report also notes a system filing glitch that “facilitated incorrect AED results,” in which case packages that had the necessary AED came up as lacking this information when scanned.

Steidler said entire batches of mail or packages can be held up if just a certain amount doesn’t have this tracking information.

The IG report finds USPS incurred additional costs and workhours related to identifying and remedying these issues, and warns USPS that “further action is still needed to mitigate the number of packages with insufficient AED.”

“With peak season it will be important that the Postal Service continues to coordinate with key stakeholders to reduce the number of export packages arriving at the ISCs with insufficient AED,” the report states.

“We’re tying up our legitimate mail exporters, or folks who have mail and packages that they want to send out internationally,” Steidler said.

USPS Vice President for Processing and Maintenance Operations Mike Barber agreed with the IG’s recommendations and said the agency’s “expeditiously corrected” the issues that caused USPS to erroneously reject outgoing international mail and packages.

USPS policy states employees are required to refuse shipments lacking sufficient AED and return these packages to the sender. However, Steidler said the agency, already inundated with packages during its peak holiday operations, doesn’t have the capacity to store packages that don’t meet the AED requirements.

“We should have some facilities and structures where we can put suspicious packages, and we don’t have that. We don’t even have the basic investment that’s been made to confiscate packages that are suspicious, put them on the side until they can be inspected or sent back,” Steidler said.

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