Illicit fentanyl distribution exploiting postal loopholes

An influx of nearly $800m-worth of illicit fentanyl pills have made their way to Americans via illegal websites and the US Postal Service over the past two years, a US Senate report reveals.

Produced by the Senate homeland security and government affairs investigations subcommittee, the year-long investigation found that Chinese racketeers were taking advantage of the booming e-commerce environment to sell the opioid painkiller illegally under the cover of the anonymity provided by online sites, the New York Times reported.

To avoid detection from the authorities, the report said, the Chinese sellers then ship the drugs through other countries or use the US Postal Service to distribute smaller parcels of the powerful drug that has contributed to the opioid epidemic in the US, which claimed more than 64,000 lives in 2016.

The investigation was overseen by Senators Ohio Republican Rob Portman and Delaware Democrat and subcommittee chairman Tom Carper.

It is not new news that China has been named as the main source for illicit fentanyl flooding the US, which is increasingly being found in counterfeit painkillers and anxiety meds, but the report identifies the ease of accessing the drugs online and the loophole in the international mail system, revealing why the issue hasn’t been adequately tackled by Customs and Border Protection.

The report highlights the discrepancy between commercial shippers, such as UPS and FedEx, and the US Postal Service, where commercial shippers are required by law to provide information to Customs and Border Protection about the parcels they ship to help identify suspicious parcels but the same cannot be said for packages posted via the US Postal Service.

The investigation estimated that some 318 million parcels from overseas were not monitored as they were shipped via the US Postal Service last year.

“We now know the depth to which drug traffickers exploit our mail system to ship fentanyl and other synthetic drugs into the US,” Portman said in a statement. “The federal government can, and must, act to shore up our defences against this deadly drug and help save lives.”

It is expected the report will now form the grounds for more stringent moves to combat the import of the drugs with more pressure on the postal service and border officials, the New York Times said.

According to the report, which identified 500 online transactions involving fentanyl with a street value of $766 million, most Americans sourcing the illicit drugs were based in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, although 43 states were implicated. Some were buying for personal consumption, others were looking to on-sell the drug for personal gain.

The investigation found that seven synthetic opioid-related deaths in the US were linked to online sales specifically probed by the Senate subcommittee, The Guardian reported. In response to the investigation, China announced it would work with the US to crack down on the illicit trade, according to the South China Morning Post.

The investigation findings will be shared with law enforcement officials, which may pursue criminal cases.

The report follows US President Donald Trump’s announcement last year when he declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency – although he fell short of declaring the epidemic a national emergency, which would have released federal money and resources to tackle the problem.

The announcement was also seen as doing little to address the rise of counterfeit opioids containing fentanyl, was told.

Meanwhile, individual states are taking matters into their own hands. On Tuesday, New York city filed a lawsuit against pharma companies manufacturing opioids for their part in facilitating the epidemic. Several other states have also sued companies with the intention of creating change in corporate behaviour and receiving compensation for state money spent addressing the issue seen to be of big pharma’s creation.

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