House Passes Bill to Help USPS Block International Shipments With Illegal Opioids

By Steve Heap / Shutterstock.com

The House on Thursday easily approved a measure to overhaul the international mailing system in an effort to shed the U.S. Postal Service’s reputation as an unwitting drug courier and reduce its role in the nation’s opioid crisis.

Many lawmakers and stakeholders have for years pushed the reform, which would require USPS to receive “advanced electronic data” on the contents of international packages before they reach the United States, but the Securing the International Mail Against Opioids Act (H.R. 5788) was only brought to a vote after a bipartisan, bicameral agreement broke through last week. Supporters of the measure were hopeful it would help stem the flow of illicit, synthetic opioids from foreign manufacturers through the mail system.

The legislation would bring requirements currently enforced on private shipping companies to the Postal Service by 2021, when the mailing agency would transmit the advanced data, or AED, to Customs and Border Protection on 100 percent of international packages. USPS, which currently only collects the data on 40 percent of inbound international packages, would have to pass on the information on 70 percent of packages by the end of this year. The agency would face civil penalties starting in 2021 if it continues to allow international shipments without AED to enter the country. Most foreign packages would face a $1 fee to cover the costs of additional customs processing.

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The bill would have far-reaching impacts across the federal government. CBP is responsible for inspecting the packages at USPS’ international mail facilities, though investigations can incorporate Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Agency, USPS’ Postal Inspection Service and other federal offices. The House bill would require the State Department to negotiate international agreements that require foreign countries to provide AED before sending packages. USPS, CBP and other agencies would be tasked with collaborating to develop new technology to help customs officers better detect illicit drugs in the mail.

CBP has often stressed the challenges associated with its task, likening the process of finding small batches of potentially deadly synthetic opioids to finding a “needle in a pile of needles in a needle factory.”

The agency currently relies primarily on canine teams to find packages containing illicit drugs. Robert Perez, CBP’s executive assistant commissioner for operations support, told Government Executive in an interview last year that front-line personnel rely on analytics based on synthesized information gathered throughout the government’s law enforcement arm to better identify what to look for when searching for illegal materials. That is coupled with and updated by CBP’s own observations in the field, as officers adjust to the new practices adopted by drug traffickers.

CBP maintains a presence at international shipping centers operated by both private carriers and the Postal Service, though under a law enacted after 9/11, only the private carriers are currently required to provide AED. That gives customs officers insight into who is sending the packages and allows them to flag questionable content lists based on their knowledge of how the traffickers operate. CBP’s National Targeting Center combs through the data on a daily basis and provides reports back to “advanced targeting teams” in the field, which then further analyze the information and filter it through the trends they see locally to help screeners identify packages for additional scrutiny.

USPS was, until recently, not providing that advanced data at all, and despite some pilot programs requiring the electronic information, still does so in a minority of cases. At international mail facilities, therefore, Perez said CBP officers operate on a “much more manual” basis. The agency asks the Postal Service to segregate mail originating from “countries of interest” and then begins a “manpower-intensive” process, including hand-picking out questionable packages and putting them through x-rays and other technologies front-line personnel employ.

Those individuals are looking not just for narcotics but violative content that runs “the full gambit of the CBP mission,” Perez explained.

“They’re the best at what they do,” Perez said. But still, private carriers shipped 50 million international packages in 2016, compared to 600 million from the Postal Service.

Dealing with such a massive quantity, he added, creates the need to “manage that risk and hone in our focus.”

Lawmakers on the House floor Thursday repeatedly shared stories of how the opioid crisis, and specifically synthetics such as fentanyl, had ravaged their districts. Still, the measure did not win universal support. Critics at hearings over the last two years have said that many countries do not have the capacity to provide the advanced data the bill would require and its passage would effectively shut off the shipping of packages to the United States from those areas. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., voted for an earlier version of the measure in committee but on the floor criticized the latest iteration after he said Republican leadership insisted on the civil penalties on USPS without assessing their impact.

Paul Steidler, a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a right-leaning think tank that has for years sounded the alarm on the Postal Service’s role in bringing opioids into the country, said trends in international mailing will require most nations to collect and transmit AED within the next five to 10 years. In the meantime, he said, mailers from any country will be able to pay extra fees to send their packages to the United States, making any concerns on that topic illegitimate.

“These are very reasonable measures that need to be completed,” Steidler said.

Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Mich., who authored the bill, said when the bipartisan agreement was announced that it would “ensure our law enforcement has all the tools they need to keep this poison out of the hands of our children and our communities.”

“This common-sense legislation will close loopholes in the international mail system currently being exploited by drug traffickers to ship dangerous synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, across our borders,” Bishop said.

USPS itself declined to offer a full endorsement of the bill, saying it would “work collaboratively” with lawmakers and other stakeholders to “offer helpful suggestions on the bill text.”

“The Postal Service shares the deep concern of the Congress and the administration about America's opioid crisis,” said Dave Partenheimer, a USPS spokesman. “As we have done throughout our history, the Postal Service is committed to taking all practicable measures to ensure our nation's mail security, and provide the American public the best, most efficient service possible.”

The White House is supportive of the bill.

“This bill would improve the security of the international mail system to prevent abuses by those who would use it to smuggle dangerous opioids and other illicit substances into the United States,” the administration said in a statement.

President Trump laid out his Initiative to Stop Opioid Abuse in March, which included suggestions similar to those in the House-backed bill. The federal government continues to attack the issue from many angles, including efforts to stop the problem at the source. The DEA, for example, has grown its presence in China and is working with its counterparts there to crack down on manufacturers of opioid synthetics that are common in the country. The agency has set up an exchange program of chemists to identify and share emerging trends, as manufacturers are constantly altering the compounds that make up the drugs.

The House bill will now head to the Senate, where it already has bipartisan backing. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who has championed the issue for multiple sessions of Congress, said he would ensure the measure gets signed into law “in the coming weeks.”

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