Fighting the opioid epidemic: Congress can't just pass laws, but must also push to enforce them

Fighting the opioid epidemic: Congress can't just pass laws, but must also push to enforce them
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In today’s hyper-partisan environment, we should celebrate the success of a bill being signed into law, especially on an issue as serious as the nationwide opioid epidemic. It takes months, if not years of hard work for legislation to earn the approval of both chambers of Congress and reach the oval office. But that’s never the end of the process, and Congress cannot rest once a bill secures the president’s signature.

Yet that is precisely what we risk with one of the most important laws designed to fight the ongoing opioid crisis. The Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (Stop) Act is designed to close a major loophole in the international mail system that allowed drug traffickers to easily evade law enforcement and ship dangerous synthetic drugs like fentanyl directly into the U.S. 

Before the Stop Act, international packages sent through the mail system and delivered by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) did not need to include crucial security information known as advance electronic data (AED), which is mandated for packages delivered by private carriers. Criminals seized on this — a congressional investigation found that online drug dealers recommended using the postal system, warning that packages sent via private carriers were more likely to be intercepted. 

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Thanks to the hard work of dozens of congressional leaders, the Stop Act has closed this loophole and all international shipments must now include AED.

However, in reality, our federal agencies are not meeting the clear deadlines outlined in the Stop Act. And over seven months after President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE signed the bill into law the American people have seen no evidence that it is being properly implemented.

Congress now has a responsibility to exercise its oversight role and ensure the Stop Act is enforced as intended. Yet while members of Congress are regularly introducing new laws aimed at preventing addiction, changing the drug classification process or sanctioning fentanyl producers, these already-passed laws sit unaddressed and unenforced.

To be clear, it’s important that Congress continues to draft new legislation and looks at new ways to end the opioid crisis. But if we do not address the root of the problem — the easy-to-access illegal drug supply chain —  the multitude of other initiatives designed to fight the epidemic, from education to harm reduction to recovery, will not be effective.

By the end of last year, the postal service was required to have AED on 100 percent of packages from China — the most prolific source of illegal fentanyl in the U.S. —  and 70 percent of packages from foreign posts overall. Yet Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanTrump's GOP impeachment firewall holds strong 10 top Republicans who continue to deny the undeniable GOP braces for impeachment brawl MORE (R-Ohio) and Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperInstead of raising the gas tax, stop wasting money on frivolous projects To stave off a recession, let's pass a transportation infrastructure bill Overnight Energy: Trump tweets he's revoking California's tailpipe waiver | Move comes as Trump visits state | California prepares for court fight | Climate activist Greta Thunberg urges lawmakers to listen to scientists MORE (D-Del.) found that in January of this year, USPS only had data on 76 percent of Chinese packages and 57 percent overall. 

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And there is no public evidence that USPS and the Department of Homeland Security ever delivered the reports to Congress on AED compliance that the Stop Act requires. When we’re losing more than 70,000 American lives to overdoses in just one year, missing these deadlines is simply unacceptable. 

Laws are not passed just to fill constituent newsletters and Twitter feeds. The months of hard work that bipartisan leaders spent crafting and passing the Stop Act were done with the intent of creating lasting change, not maintaining the status quo and quickly moving onto the next issue of the day. If our federal agencies are not meeting the law’s comprehensive AED requirements, the American people should know, and Congress should demand to see how they will resolve the issue.

I hope Congress keeps passing bills, and celebrates when it does. But the work does not stop there. The devil is in the details and Congress must not only pass laws but fight just as aggressively to enforce them.

Juliette Kayyem is a 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 Americans for Securing All Packages.