Over the past two years, opioid-related deaths have increased 49%, reaching 69,710 in 2020. This underreported national health crisis could soon worsen.
To begin with, there is the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), produced 83% of the world’s opium between 2015 and 2020. For fifteen years, the United States attempted to eradicate opium production in Afghanistan and failed. The Taliban taxed opium to finance their insurgency.
“The Taliban have relied on the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income,” said Cesar Gudes, head of the UNODC Kabul office. As the Afghan economy implodes, higher levels of opium production will likely provide significant economic support.
On September 27, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a public safety alert, the first in six years, regarding the “alarming increase in the lethality and availability of fake prescription pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamine ”. As DEA administrator Ann Milgram said, “Counterfeit pills that contain these dangerous and extremely addictive drugs are deadlier and more accessible than ever.”
The DEA also reported that “the vast majority of counterfeit pills imported into the United States are produced in Mexico and China supplies chemicals for the manufacture of fentanyl to Mexico.”
With nearly all opioids manufactured outside the United States, a concerted national response is essential to tackle the scourge. International drug cartels are sophisticated and creative traders and senders who use the Internet to market their products, while relying on global postal services as a critical delivery component.
And there is no indication that they have had any supply chain bottleneck issues.
Law enforcement agencies regularly tout in press releases how they have intercepted large amounts of illegal drugs through the international mail system.
A July 30, 2021 press release from the US District Attorney for the Southern District of New York concerned the conviction of a criminal dubbed “Fentmaster” who was arrested after law enforcement “intercepted several packages containing kilograms of fentanyl analogues imported from Hong Kong. “
A July 16, 2021 press release from the U.S. Attorney General for Utah announced the conviction of seven co-defendants in “a drug trafficking organization that imported fentanyl and alprazolam from China and used these drugs to make fake pills. fentanyl-based oxycodone and counterfeit Xanax tablets. The US attorney’s office noted that “more than 90” of the organization’s clients “died of drug overdoses.”
The above crimes and others can be deterred by applying Advanced Electronic Data (AED) requirements on all incoming packages to the United States. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Congress passed the Commerce Act, requiring the AED on all inbound international shipments delivered by private carriers.
The Trade Act provided that the U.S. Postal Service would soon be required to have an AED, but that did not happen. In fact, the absence of AED led the drug cartels to openly announce to American customers that they wanted to send them opioids through the international postal system.
In 2018, Congress overwhelmingly voted on a bipartisan basis to enact the Synthetic Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act (STOP Act). Interim US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) regulations issued on March 15, 2021, however, still allow delivery of packages without AED and more than 100 countries have exemptions from the AED requirement.
The STOP law came in response to well-documented large-scale shipments of fentanyl and other illegal opioids from China. While the Chinese government banned the production and sale of fentanyl and many of its variants in May 2019, a November 2020 National Public Radio investigative report found that large amounts of illegal opioids were still shipped from China.
Regardless of which countries are now sending opioids to the United States, DEA must be a central part of our anti-drug arsenal. Because of its potency, fentanyl is ideal for mailing. The DEA reports that one kilogram of fentanyl has the potential to kill 500,000 people.
The EDA’s demands under the trade law limited the potential wrongdoing by the Taliban and other foreign adversaries. Almost twenty years after this effective action, it is imperative to demand the full application of the STOP law.
In addition, the hyper-growth of advanced electronic data sophistication dramatically increases the success rate in the pursuit of dangerous parcels in the mail. CBP has seen this in various enforcement exercises.
In an age when America uses advanced data analytics for cutting edge scientific and technological research, which is used to better understand sports matches and decision scenarios, why would we hesitate to use it to enforce our own laws? and protect our own citizens from drug cartels?
In addition, the abdication of federal leadership in the application of the STOP law is particularly burdensome for local law enforcement agencies. Once these drugs are dispersed throughout American communities, local law enforcement must respond to the crimes and the human toll of so many lives lost.
The time has come to renew and strengthen the rigorous application of the federal law against international drug cartels. We must act before the Taliban allows increased opium production and before the drug cartels, including the counterfeiters, become more emboldened. We need to use our powerful and untapped expertise in information technology and data analysis to keep this poison from entering America as much as possible.
Paul Steidler is Senior Fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.