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Unchecked mail leads to fentanyl in the US

By BISHOP NASH

The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — The emergence of fentanyl has changed the dynamic of the opioid epidemic in more ways than simply its devastating effects on the end consumer.

The pharmaceutical painkiller does not typically enter United States through the shadowy trade routes once trodden by past narcotic inflows. It isn’t hauled by the ton aboard a shipping container bound for the Port of Miami like the peak years of cocaine. For the most part, it doesn’t even arrive over the southern border as Mexican heroin has for years.

It has revealed a new source player in the opioid epidemic: China, where most of the drug is processed in bootleg fashion out of sight from state authorities. The incredible potency of fentanyl — about 50 times more powerful than pure heroin and lethal in mere milligrams, gives it a distinct advantage over cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, or even heroin. It can be shipped in quantities small enough to often go unnoticed but powerful enough to remain profitable for dealers stateside.

In the fentanyl trade, big things come in small packages.

Small enough, as is often the case, to fit in an envelope, shipped and received through the international postal service as easy as any legal online purchase. It’s a security loophole that would not be tolerated in any other industry, said Juliette Kayyem, senior advisor for Americans for Securing All Packages, a bipartisan advocacy group calling for increased security screening for parcels entering the United States.

Kayyem, who served as assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under the Obama administration, called the glaring lack of scrutiny for international mail entering the country the “homeland security issue of our time” considering the nation’s skyrocketing overdose death totals. An estimated 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016.

“This isn’t weapons or people. This is something that can fit in an envelope, and that’s why we have to be more nimble about tracing the supply chain,” Kayyem said. “(Suppliers) are finding gaps in the system, and they’re utilizing them. The postal system is a vulnerability that can be manipulated.

“This isn’t like boats of cocaine that can only go to a certain island. Every post office now becomes like the Port of Miami.”

Chasing the dragon

West Virginia has been described as the epicenter for fentantyl use in the United States, though the drug rarely enters the area directly from source countries. Instead, it passes first through a major metropolitan supplier city, like the heroin trade. The more powerful, cheaper fentanyl may be cut with pure heroin to increase potency and profit margin or pressed into pills and sold as counterfeit pharmaceuticals, said Bruce Ohr, associate deputy attorney general with the U.S. Justice Department, during a roundtable discussion on fentanyl last week in Charleston.

Because the drug may now simply be ordered through the darknets, an online network beyond the reach of standard browsers and search engines, the new landscape pushes federal law enforcement to become more cyber-savvy. When tracing the source back through the internet, authorities in some cases hop from one supplier up the ladder eventually to a source supplier in China.

“It’s very difficult for us to stop. It’s not like, ‘Hey, we know who the Sinaloa (Mexican drug cartel) plaza boss is. Let’s go after him.’ It could be multiple people,” Ohr told the panel. “Our guys need to really shift and instead of becoming street agents, they have to become cyberagents.”

So far it’s been an effective method, he added, leading to two major federal indictments against Chinese suppliers stemming from cases this year in Mississippi and North Dakota.

Should law enforcement turn up an international package containing narcotics, the would-be recipient is met at the door by a federal agent rather than a postal carrier, explained David Abatte, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement assistant special agent for Homeland Security Investigations in Pittsburgh, at the fentanyl discussion.

Should they choose to cooperate, agents may be given control of the recipient’s darknet accounts to look for co-conspirators.

“It’s obviously very had to detect a few hundred grams in a parcel with the volume of mail coming into the country, so that’s the challenge,” Abatte said.

While Huntington isn’t normally the first stop for fentanyl once it reaches the United States, it’s not uncommon for Huntington Police to be tipped off to a drug shipment through the mail, Chief Joe Ciccarelli said – usually every few weeks or so, typically marijuana and synthetic drugs. Most of the packaging appears to happen domestically in source cities like Detroit, Columbus or Atlanta, though Ciccarelli said police have responded to a few overdose cases involving suspected drug dealers suffering overdoses while packaging the drugs in town.

Dealers may believe there is some degree of anonymity in mailing and receiving a drug, Ciccarelli said, though it ultimately requires a valid, and traceable, address.

“I think what happens is if they’ve gotten away with it once, they think they’ve discovered the way to do this,” Ciccarelli said. “You can have it sent to your address under some phony name, but the address has to be accurate.”

Turning off the hose

Chinese producers stay ahead of the FDA’s drug classifications by creating a new derivative of fentanyl seemingly every month, Ohr said, in an effort to remain on the fringes of legality. When one type of new fentanyl is scheduled as illegal by the FDA and its Chinese equivalent agency, chemists will tweak the molecules ever so slightly to create a similar product, yet different enough to require new regulations each time before being proclaimed illegal.

“We can’t always be chasing something that’s not illegal, particularly in China,” Ohr said. “They’ve got to make all (fentanyl derivatives) illegal.”

As for China, Kayyem said the government does not have any interest in condoning the international sale of fentanyl, and has cooperated with U.S. authorities. However, that country does not particularly have any incentive to stop the flow either, aside from any international pressure the United States has yet to apply, she said.

“Unless the U.S. changes, nobody else will change,” Kayyem said. “The U.S always sets the floor for global security standards.”

Such standards would require as much data as possible for international packages entering the United States, Kayyem said. Private mailers, like Fedex and DHL, already do require more traceable information than is standard, but public postal services require little more than a stamp.

Postal services would need upgraded technology to track and store a database for its international packages’ origins and destinations. China’s mail infrastructure is developed enough to handle such a request, Kayyem said, adding that the financial cost of installing any new infrastructure pales in comparison to the human cost of continuing to allow fentanyl and other narcotics entering the country through the mail.

President Donald Trump recommended early in his term the federal government move toward closing the gaps, Kayyem said. Though it is partially within the president’s power to do so, full legislative action would be most beneficial, she added.

Ohr, in addressing the fentanyl roundtable discussion in Charleston last week, also touched on the importance of controlling the inflow of narcotics through the mail.

“We need to know as much as possible ahead of time about each one of those parcels coming in so we can use our computers and bright people to figure out the ones you need to pull out of the mail stream and look at,” Ohr said.

Fentanyl was present in 56 percent of the fatal overdoses in Cabell County during 2016, according to data from the Huntington Mayor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, up from 39 percent in 2015. Of the 132 fatal overdoses in Cabell County in 2016, 74 were fentanyl-related. By comparison, 40 of the 102 fatal overdoses were fentanyl-related in 2015.

Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter at @BishopNash.

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