Juliette Kayyem, faculty chair of the Homeland Security project at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, was an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2010. She is a senior adviser to the nonprofit Americans for Securing All Packages.
The first two waves of the opioid epidemic — prescription painkillers and heroin — may not be over, but a third wave has begun. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported, the opioid market is getting more lethal thanks to fentanyl, a purely synthetic opioid that saw a 113 percent increase in deaths from 2013 to 2016.
No one doubts the severity of this crisis. Yet it’s unclear whether President Trump’s administration is using all of the tools at its disposal to address it, including those Congress created just last year. At the very least, the public deserves a progress report.
Fentanyl is a manufacturer’s dream. It does not require poppies, like heroin, but merely a lab and synthetic chemicals. It can be mixed with other drugs, increasing the magnitude of sales. It’s a perfect business model, but it requires a vulnerable supply chain to enter U.S. communities.
This isn’t the sort of supply chain that building a wall can stop, because it resides at every mailbox and post office in the United States. A report from the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General found that most black-market drug sites use the weakest link in import delivery: good old-fashioned mail.
This is made possible because the drug trade is now digital. The convenience that makes international e-commerce so popular for ordinary consumer goods is also popular for those interested in illegal drugs, including dangerous Chinese synthetics. For its part, China announced on Monday that it would classify all variants of fentanyl as controlled substances, indicating a crackdown on the manufacturing and distribution of this legal drug.
Congress passed bipartisan legislation last year to address the opioid epidemic, including the Synthetics Trafficking and Opioids Prevention Act (Stop Act), which closes a security loophole that has provided traffickers with a pipeline to ship synthetic drugs into the country through the postal system. The Trump administration should be commended for pushing this legislation forward.
But a law needs to be implemented. These deadly drugs are still arriving from China, and we lack the tools needed to stop them. Recently, four federal agencies, including the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, launched the Opioid Detection Challenge , a prize competition that rewards innovative solutions for helping law enforcement agencies cut off the supply of drugs such as fentanyl.
While the government is wise to seek input to solve this unprecedented crisis, we have a solution that has been debated and passed by Congress and signed into law: the Stop Act. The law requires all packages sent into the United States via the global postal system to include advance electronic data — security information that U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses to screen for dangerous material. Such data was already required for international packages delivered by private carriers, but the public postal network was open to manipulation by drug traffickers. The Stop Act intended to close that security gap.
Unfortunately, we lack answers about the U.S. Postal Service’s progress in implementing the new requirements. We’ve already hit deadlines prescribed under the law without any indication that the requirements have been achieved. By the end of last year, the law required the Postal Service to have advance electronic data on 100 percent of packages from China and 70 percent of packages overall. The Department of Homeland Security and the Postal Service should have already provided Congress a joint strategic plan that outlines specific performance measures for collecting this data. But there is no public indication that either of these deadlines were met, even as foreign fentanyl continues to drive tragic overdose deaths.
It’s imperative that Congress keep the Postal Service and our federal agencies accountable for implementing the Stop Act as written and as demanded by the American people. It’s all well and good to encourage new innovations to fight this epidemic, but that cannot mean abdicating the responsibility to follow the laws that have already been passed. According to Customs and Border Protection estimates, its officers inspect only 100 of the more than 1.3 million international packages delivered through the Postal Service every day. It’s clear that without advanced electronic data, our law enforcement officers are not properly equipped to handle the magnitude of this crisis.
The secretary of Homeland Security and the postmaster general are due to submit a report to Congress this month on data compliance. If the government is to fully implement the Stop Act by the end of 2020, as the law requires, then these interim steps are crucial. The American people should demand evidence that the hunt for solutions to the opioid crisis is a 24/7 event with no days off and that every federal agency is responsible for its actions. There is no excuse for inaction.