By Tim Gray /

USPS, CBP Not Implementing Law to Stop Flow of Opioids Into the Country

The Postal Service is not receiving the data that makes it easier to detect illicit goods coming from overseas.

The U.S. Postal Service is failing to carry out a law designed to better screen foreign packages for illicit opioids and other products, with most countries falling out of compliance with new requirements and the Trump administration opting not to follow through on its implementation. 

At least 135 countries have not provided the proper data on packages they are sending to the United States, according to the USPS inspector general, as required by the 2018 Synthetic Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act. The exact percentage of foreign packages coming into the country without the data was redacted in the report, but the IG said USPS will not be able to meet its statutory requirement that 100% of international shipments provide the information by Jan. 1, 2021. Most of the foreign packages with the data originated from China, the IG said. 

“USPS will be substantially challenged to meet the STOP Act’s requirement for AED on all inbound packages by the January 2021 deadline,” the IG said. 

“Advanced electronic data,” or AED, provide USPS and Customs and Border Protection with information about the contents of international packages before they reach the United States. A requirement for the data is already imposed on international packages coming into the country through private carriers like FedEx and UPS, but the mandate will apply across the board to international packages arriving through USPS starting in 2021 thanks to the measure President Trump signed into law in 2018.

Supporters were hopeful the requirement would help stem the flow of illicit, synthetic opioids from foreign manufacturers through the mail system. While the IG redacted much of the information, it disclosed USPS received AED on 57% of foreign packages in 2018 and much of that information was unreliable. The Postal Service in that year failed to place holds for further inspection on 12% of packages flagged by CBP.

The challenges for the STOP Act are not limited to just foreign actors, however. The federal government has not taken the necessary steps to implement it, such as Customs and Border Protection’s failure to put forward regulations to clarify requirements for the law and penalties for circumventing it. Without that implementation guidance, there is not yet a common definition for what data is mandatory, nor is there a process for exempting countries out of compliance. Those regulations were due in October 2019, but CBP has failed to deliver them. 

“Without those regulations, USPS and international posts are unsure about the best way to prepare for compliance,” the IG said. 

The IG noted USPS is working with other countries to provide both expertise and financial support to “help developing countries jump start their AED capabilities.” The Universal Postal Union, a division of the United Nations that supports international mailing, is also expected to increase its pressure on countries throughout the world to come into compliance with the data requirements for outbound packages. While the IG said full compliance with the STOP Act is “out of reach,” USPS is moving in the right direction. 

Foreign posts are struggling to convert what has historically been a paper-based process into electronic data, the IG said, and to do so in a way that is internationally consistent. 

President Trump personally pressured lawmakers to pass the STOP Act prior to its enactment.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who ushered the STOP Act through the Senate, criticized USPS and CBP for not moving more quickly to come into compliance with the law and pledged further follow up. 

“The mandate of the STOP Act is clear, the Postal Service must refuse any package without AED starting at 12:01AM on January 1, 2021," Portman said. "The STOP Act was passed in 2018, which gave the Postal Service–and CBP–two years to prepare for this deadline. The amount of work identified by the OIG to achieve 100% compliance by the Postal Service is unacceptable and I certainly plan to find out why that is the case.” 

CBP is responsible for inspecting the packages at USPS’ international mail facilities, though investigations can involve Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Agency, USPS’ Postal Inspection Service and other federal offices. The STOP Act required the State Department to negotiate international agreements that require foreign countries to provide AED before sending packages. USPS, CBP and other agencies are collaborating to develop new technology to help customs officers better detect illicit drugs in the mail.

Prior to the STOP Act, CBP relied primarily on canine teams to find packages containing illicit drugs. Agency officials have said front-line personnel also use analytics based on synthesized information gathered throughout the government’s law enforcement community 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 ever-changing practices adopted by drug traffickers.

AED 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.

Until recently, USPS was not providing any advanced data at all. At international mail facilities, therefore, CBP officers have been operating on a more manual basis. The agency asks the Postal Service to segregate mail originating from “countries of interest” and then begins what officials have described as a “manpower-intensive” process, including hand-selecting questionable packages and putting them through x-rays and other technologies frontline personnel employ.

This story has been updated with additional comment