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Strengthen CBP regulations to reduce opioid deaths

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The U.S. is squandering a major opportunity in the fight against the opioid epidemic by not aggressively enforcing the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act (STOP Act). It is far too easy for criminal cartels in China, the source of most illegal opioids, to use the U.S. and international postal systems to mail fentanyl and other opioids to Americans.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) should fix this immediately by toughening regulations on such shipments and impounding packages that do not have electronic tracking information, a clear violation of U.S. law.

Enacted in October 2018, The STOP Act is as bipartisan as legislation gets. Championed by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Tom Carper (D-Del.), it grew out of a January 2018 bipartisan report by the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that documented Chinese criminal enterprises preferred to use the international postal system because it did not require advanced electronic data (AED) on shipments.

AED consists of fields of information reported by shippers. The foreign postal service then shares this information with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), which passes it on to CBP. Packages are tracked in transit.

AED, combined with sophisticated and fast-growing data analytics, enables many more suspicious and harmful packages to be identified and seized. And with 500 million packages entering the U.S. annually, AED is essential to the inspection process.

The technology is well established. Private shippers have been legally required to have AED on all packages to the U.S. since 2002. USPS, however, was given an exemption.

Today, America’s data analytics are highly sophisticated, thus enabling CBP to better pinpoint dangerous shipments.

The STOP Act required AED on all packages being delivered by USPS from China beginning Jan. 1, 2019 and from other countries Jan. 1, 2021.

But CBP did not issue interim final regulations (IFR) until March 15, 2021 even though they were required by October 2019. The regulations are far less rigorous than Congress intended. More troubling, packages without AED continue to be delivered throughout America.

The delay has been costly.

In January, the National Institutes of Health reported that opioids killed 49,860 Americans in 2019, up more than 3,000 from 2018. Nearly three years after The STOP Act became law, large volumes of small packages without AED still enter the U.S., delivered by USPS.

Central to any plan to enforce AED must be the seizure and non-delivery of packages without it.

During a Dec. 10, 2020 U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, it was clear that Portman and Carper anticipated many packages would be seized. That has not happened and will not under the IFR.

The 36 pages of regulations do not mention large-scale confiscation. The IFR does not address the need for warehouse space or other facilities, which would support seizure effort and require significant funds.

Furthermore, little is being spent on enforcement. A March 29, 2021 U.S. Government Accountability Office report says, “CBP estimated that the rule would result in net annualized monetized costs of $8.3 million.”

CBP should impose fees on all international packages coming to USPS. These costs would be paid by the shippers, in China and elsewhere overseas. At the reasonable cost of $1 per package, this would raise approximately $500 million annually, which should fund enhanced enforcement.

Other issues to be addressed:

Vast Number of Exemptions — Under the IFR, more than 100 countries will likely be granted AED exemptions with no expiration. This will be a catalyst for large-scale transshipments from criminal enterprises in China who will send opioids to undeveloped countries before they are re-packaged and get to the United States.

Absence of Reporting Benchmarks and Transparency — The IFR does not say how compliance will be monitored. Given the long delays in implementing AED regulations, it is imperative that quarterly reports be prepared with the number of packages entering the U.S. with AED, the percent searched and how often opioids and other illegal products were found, and progress being made in having other countries ship using AED.

AED on All Incoming Foreign Postal Items — The IFR applies to packages, but not to documents. As fentanyl is 80 times more powerful than morphine, a few ounces can be shipped in a small envelope the shipper claims has documents. This loophole should be closed.

To save lives, we must change CBP’s regulations and address the opioid epidemic with the same urgency when The STOP Act was enacted, and optimism abounded.

Paul Steidler is a Senior Fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Va.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Fentanyl Opioid Rob Portman Tom Carper United States Postal Service

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