by Bob Barr
Despite being labeled a major health epidemic in 2013, the extremely powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl continues to flood into our country and ruin lives in communities from coast to coast. A nagging question is whether the United States Postal Service (USPS) is part of the solution or part of the problem.
The lethargy exhibited by the USPS in complying with federal law mandating that it do a far better job of stopping fentanyl from entering the United States from abroad – especially from China — has been the subject of more than a single congressional hearing in recent years.
Also problematic, however, is failure by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to uphold its part of the bargain, as also mandated by the Congress.
Despite the “Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act” (STOP Act) becoming law in 2018, only now, two-and-one-half years later, is the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP, getting around to issuing final regulations to implement the act.
For its part, the USPS has been openly dismissive of the law’s requirement that it implement technology, known as “Advanced Electronic Data (AED),” by which to identify suspicious packages coming into one of several international mail facilities to be flagged for inspection by CBP. Such AED technology was supposed to have been in place by Jan. 1 this year but was not. Last September, the USPS Inspector General publicly blamed CBP for this shortcoming because it had failed to issue implementing regulations for the STOP Act.
The CBP has taken an almost Alice-in-Wonderland view of the problem. For example, in testimony last Dec. 10 before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, a top CBP official, Thomas Overacker, blithely declared that, despite the deadline of Jan. 1, 2021 being “on the near horizon,” his agency “has persistently … expanded interagency cooperation, updated technologies, and changed staffing methodologies to enhance targeting, enforcement, and interdiction of narcotics in the international mail environment.” Translation – nothing of significance has yet been done.
Rest assured, however, as Overacker told the Senators in that same appearance, “CBP, USPS, and our federal partners in the United States will continue to monitor progress toward compliance with the AED requirements” and continue “working closely” to address the fentanyl problem. Translation – expect more of the same.
It is no secret that much, if not most of the fentanyl entering the United States is from China – directly or indirectly by way of Mexican cartels that produce the synthetic opioid with chemical components from China. The finished product is then smuggled across our increasingly porous southern border. The preferred means for China’s fentanyl producers to send the drug directly to American consumers is by USPS, since the chances for detection are low and the likelihood of delivery high.
Private sector delivery services, such as UPS and FedEx, have for several years, and as required by federal law after the attacks of 9-11, utilized AED technology to scan virtually every package that comes into the United States from abroad through their delivery services.
Significantly, the USPS was successful in carving out an exemption from the post-911 law’s AED mandates. Even though the Postal Service tried unsuccessfully to exempt itself from the 2018 STOP Act, its slow-walking implementation of the law’s requirements has been notorious and, for recipients of fentanyl-laced packages ordered openly on the internet from China, deadly.
As currently drafted, the pending CBP “final” regulations contain numerous loopholes, including an overly broad definition of “letter,” a category of incoming international mail exempt from AED review. More important, however, is the fact that many countries (some 130) are exempted from the AED requirements, with no meaningful benchmarks for compliance.
There are other dangers to the years-long failure by the USPS and the CBP to get their act together in this regard. Not only has this bureaucratic dithering negatively impacted the fight against illicit fentanyl importation but has made it much easier to bring counterfeit goods, including PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) into the country.
If the Biden administration is looking for an easy way to stanch the flow of illicit fentanyl into the country and at the same time curtail the importation of counterfeit goods, it can easily do so by strengthening the pending CBP rule to at long last fully implement the STOP Act, and then actually force federal agencies to abide by it.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.