Want to End the Fentanyl Epidemic? Get Back to Basics

Want to End the Fentanyl Epidemic? Get Back to Basics

The United States has the technology and expertise to prevent deadly fentanyl from killing more of its citizens. It just needs the will.


In the same week that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a record 107,000 annual drug overdose deaths, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study reported that the international mail system was the most popular avenue for illegal drugs to enter the United States from 2016 to 2021.

Of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) twenty categories of smuggling methods, GAO “found that mail and automobiles were the top two conveyance types used for drugs seized by CBP—which represents a combined 72 percent of total CBP drug seizure cases during this period.” Furthermore, the number of seizures was three times higher for mail and small packages than for automobiles.


America has the technological know-how to prevent fentanyl and other illegal drugs from entering the United States, and to do so at a low cost. With more rigorous enforcement of the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act, the centerpiece of widely supported bipartisan drug legislation enacted in October 2018, this will happen.

The STOP Act requires advanced electronic data (AED) on all incoming overseas mail and small packages. But that simply has not been happening because of insufficient regulations promulgated by CBP, formally referred to as the Interim Final Rule.

There are no comprehensive programs in place to refuse to deliver mail and small packages from China and other countries that ship fentanyl. These packages are still getting into the United States. Also troubling, waivers have been granted to more than 100 countries. Furthermore, CBP is not publicly reporting the results of its enforcement of the STOP Act.

These issues have caught the attention of Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), who prior to the GAO report wrote to CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus about these issues on April 26, 2022.

“It is vital that every package shipped across our borders has AED in order to target and disrupt the flow of illicit drugs into the country,” said Scott.

He noted that current regulations are “not strong enough,” adding that “Communist China, one of the largest shippers of packages to the United States, has still been allowed to ship packages without AED even though the country has the means available to provide the necessary data.”

Senator Scott has asked for the answers to five basic questions by May 31:

How many packages arrive in the United States without AED?

How many packages are arriving from Communist China without AED?

Is the U.S. Postal Service being fined for accepting packages without AED?

What are CBP’s plans to close the loopholes in the Interim Final Rule?

Does CBP have plans to reject waivers granted to developed countries?

Policymakers and the public have a right to know the answers to these questions.

The STOP Act was enacted at a time when it was well documented that international drug cartels from China were shipping large amounts of fentanyl and illegal opioids to the United States. They were brazenly advertising that they preferred shipments go through the U.S. Postal Service because it did not require AED. 

International drug cartels have subsequently overhauled and refined their distribution techniques. In large part, this is due to the Chinese government’s April 2019 decision to place tighter regulations on the export of fentanyl and its analogues, substances that are chemically similar.

Today, more finished fentanyl enters the United States from Mexico and less from China. In March 2022, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported that “Mexican cartels are increasingly responsible for producing and supplying fentanyl to the U.S. market, while China remains a key source of supply for the precursor chemicals that Mexican cartels use.”

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission found that Chinese traffickers are “relocating some manufacturing to India, rerouting precursor shipments through third countries, and leveraging market schemes to avoid detection. China’s weak supervision and regulations of its chemical and pharmaceutical industry also enable evasion and circumvention.”

As such, the DEA reiterated in March 2022 that “Illicit fentanyl, fentanyl-like substances, and other novel psychoactive substances (NPS) are inexpensive, available via the Internet, and often manufactured in China where they may be shipped via the international postal system or express consignment couriers to the United States.”

Although Chinese fentanyl producers have found different distribution strategies via other countries and are no longer advertising their use of the U.S. Postal Service as brazenly as they once did, that does not mean that the need for AED has lessened. Rather, it is now even more critical that the United States has rigorous AED in place not only on packages from China but on packages from all countries.

Nearly four years after the enactment of the STOP Act, this is eminently reasonable and feasible. 

To be sure, the STOP Act is not a silver bullet, and many other law enforcement actions and treatment steps will need to be taken to reverse the staggering number of drug overdoses.

America, however, has the technology and resources to scale back a favorite distribution channel of international drug cartels. We have no time to spare in doing so. 

Paul Steidler is a Senior Fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.

Image: Reuters.