While Congress overwhelmingly enacted legislation in 2018 to curtail opioids, fentanyl, and other illegal contraband from entering the United States via the international postal system, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has dropped the ball on enforcement. This has public health and national security ramifications that Congress should investigate and fix.
In a thoroughly documented, scathing September 25 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG), CBP is admonished for not meeting the requirements of the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act of 2018 (STOP Act).
The STOP Act’s hallmark requirement was simple and reasonable: to require electronic tracking on all postal packages entering the United States from foreign posts. When this is done, suspicious packages are much more likely to be identified and seized before delivery.
Advanced electronic data (AED) tracking is a well-established technology. It has been widely used since 2002, when private shippers of international goods were required to have it on all shipments. Under the STOP Act, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is to obtain shipping information from the foreign postal service and then share it with CBP.
Some of the shortcomings that DHS OIG found are deeply disturbing.
Under the STOP Act, all packages entering the United States by January 1, 2021, were to have advanced electronic data tracking data. Yet, despite countries having nearly two and a half years to implement the program, CBP issued waivers for 148 countries in 2021 and 128 countries in 2022. This included waivers “to three countries that fell within the top 15 countries for mail seizures during Fiscal Year 2020.”
There were also serious issues with countries that sent AED. For example, the report found, “CBP’s dashboard showed Great Britain increasingly sent invalid data from FY 2019 through FY 2021, reaching a peak of 83 percent invalid data in September 2021.”
The actual number of packages inspected was quite low at some of CBP’s nine international mail facilities (IMFs). For example, “CBP officers at the Honolulu IMF placed holds on 2 of 15,167 packages with AED (or .01 percent) in FY 2021.” That’s better than two facilities that placed zero—yes, zero—packages on hold for three years.
CBP was also taken to task for accepting information from USPS and not holding it to higher standards. For example, the report found, “USPS did not update the port code to show where a package would arrive for 11 percent of all shipments with AED from FY 2019 through FY 2021. This equates to approximately 75 million of 671 million shipments with AED.”
Despite all these massive blunders, though, CBP made 185,792 drug seizures from fiscal years 2018 to 2022 at its international mail facilities. Had the CBP been rigorous with STOP Act enforcement, it would have seized far larger quantities of illegal narcotics and saved many more lives.
One driver for CBP’s negligent enforcement seems to be complacency arising from a shift in how opioids and fentanyl are sent to the United States. In 2018, opioids were predominantly entering the country by mail from China. Now, most fentanyl production has moved to Mexico, based in part on an agreement that President Trump struck in 2019 with the Chinese government to curtail production there.
However, the exact quantity of drugs pouring in directly or indirectly from China is hard to determine because of the lax CBP enforcement. Opioids continue to flood into America. In 2022, 82,998 Americans died from opioid overdoses, a more than 70 percent increase from 2018, when the STOP Act was enacted.
Fortunately, there is movement in Congress to remove even the perception of vagaries in the STOP Act. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) has written to CBP demanding better enforcement of the STOP Act. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) have introduced legislation to strengthen the original STOP Act. Congressmen David Kustoff (R-TN) and Mike Ezell (R-MS) have also introduced supporting legislation in the House of Representatives.
Simply put, packages without AED should not be delivered, which is the law. Congress should demand to know from CBP why this was allowed and ensure it no longer happens. Otherwise, drug dealers will continue to use the international postal system to ship drugs and to expand their use of the international mail system, particularly if border crossing cutdowns start to curtail U.S. supply in a meaningful way.
To paraphrase a common football adage, drug cartels and other international drug criminals take what law enforcement gives them. It is time for a lights-out defense from U.S. law enforcement. Full enforcement of the STOP Act combined with even stronger provisions is an essential step to take.