Congressional probe finds synthetic opioid easily shipped from China to US

Greg Nash

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) on Wednesday released the results of a nearly yearlong bipartisan investigation showing the ease of which drug traffickers in China can ship powerful synthetic opioids into the United States.

The 100-page report found that when it comes to fentanyl — which can be up to 50 times more potent than heroin — those selling online in China prefer to ship the drug into the country through the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) rather than private mail shippers, reportedly because the sellers think there’s less of a risk that U.S. Customs and Border Protection will seize the package.

Lawmakers and the White House are grappling with how to curb an opioid epidemic that’s led to skyrocketing death rates. The number of deaths from drugs like fentanyl more than doubled from 2015 to 2016, according to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


“This bipartisan investigation has uncovered how incredibly easy it is to buy these deadly drugs online and have them shipped here through the mail,” Carper said in a statement.

“We have also learned how ill-equipped federal agencies were to prevent drug smugglers from taking advantage of a massive surge in recent years of e-commerce and international mail to ship synthetic opioid, like fentanyl, into our communities.”

The report’s release comes ahead of a hearing on the issue Thursday, where officials from various agencies will be called to testify before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on investigations led by Portman and Carper.

In performing the investigation, subcommittee staff told reporters that they googled “fentanyl for sale.” Though they didn’t ultimately buy the drug, they said they communicated with six sellers over the course of three months.

Sellers preferred sending the drugs through USPS’s international arm, subcommittee staff said.

“Guaranteed delivery only via EMS, other shipping methods will not be guaranteed,” reads one email sent to subcommittee staff.

The investigation found a link between those selling fentanyl in China and seven synthetic-opioid related deaths in the U.S. and 18 arrests for drug-related offenses.

Subcommittee staff identified 500 online transactions for the synthetic drug, which it estimated accounted for at least $766 million worth of fentanyl sold illegally in the U.S.

David Partenheimer, a spokesman for the Postal Service, wrote in an email that USPS works “aggressively with law enforcement and key trading partners to stem the flow of illegal drugs entering the United States.”

The spokesman noted that “from FY2016 through FY2017, the Postal Inspection Service achieved a 375 percent increase in international parcel seizures, and an 880 percent increase in domestic parcel seizures related to opioids.”

Customs and Border Protection will “continue to work with our government and private-sector partners to improve the efficiency of information sharing and operational coordination to address the challenges and threats posed by illicit narcotic smuggling in the international mail environment,” a CBP spokesperson said in a statement. 

“CBP will also continue to work with USPS to improve interdiction in the mail environment through improved advanced data, and other security best practices at the nation’s IMFs.” 

Portman said in a statement that “the federal government can, and must, act to shore up our defenses against this deadly drug and help save lives.” 

Updated at 8:26 p.m. 

Tags Rob Portman Tom Carper
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