Postal Service Has a New Role: Unwitting Drug Courier

Mail treaties fail to hold foreign countries accountable for security screening, lawmakers say.

The U.S. Postal Service is making it easy for drug traffickers to ship their products into the United States, according to the agency’s top congressional overseer, and lawmakers want to know more about what USPS is doing to stop it.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, recently wrote a letter to Postmaster General Megan Brennan accusing the mailing agency of entering into agreements with foreign countries that fail to uphold security standards. The agreements, he said, fail to include measures like tracking, advanced data collection and “other risk management procedures” that would mitigate the risk of importing drugs.

“As a result,” Chaffetz wrote, “drug traffickers can exploit the absence of stringent security standards in these bilateral agreements, using the Postal Service to make final delivery of their products to the United States.”

The chairman cited studies from groups like LegitScript, which monitors online pharmacies, and the Lexington Institute think tank as evidence foreign illicit drug producers are increasingly depending on USPS to make shipments. Those studies show mail from China is the primary source for synthetic drugs in the United States, and note that the current structure incentivizes drug traffickers to use the Postal Service rather than private companies that must have international packages screened by Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration.

“The danger of allowing trafficking networks to use the Postal Service to ship contraband and hazardous materials has ramifications beyond our country’s rising dependence on illegal drugs,” Chaffetz said, “and should be viewed as a matter of national security.”

Chaffetz’s letter follows an April roundtable in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that examined how various agencies could prevent drug trafficking through international mail. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the committee’s chairman, said USPS is “compelled” by treaties on international mail to make deliveries on behalf of foreign postal agencies, without asking questions.

“Because they cannot control which individuals use these international services, the Postal Service can become an unwitting drug courier,” Johnson said at the roundtable. The panel heard from CBP, the State Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as USPS’ Postal Inspection Service on possible solutions to the problem.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said the Postal Service provides screening on packages originating in the United States heading for other countries, but counterpart posts do not always reciprocate that service.

In his letter, Chaffetz noted the United Nations’ Universal Postal Union sets the standard for international mail, but USPS often renegotiates agreements with individual countries to secure more favorable rates. The treaty was set up that way so wealthier nations would help subsidize the delivery costs for developing nations. When USPS negotiates for better rates, Chaffetz said, it has little leverage to require its international partners put screening measures in place.

The chairman asked the Postal Service to provide documentation showing what steps the agency has taken or has considered taking to boost screening, as well as how USPS is working to specifically thwart illegal drugs and other materials from entering the country through the mail. 

A Postal Service spokeswoman said the agency would be responding to Chaffetz' request, but declined to comment on the substance of the letter. 

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