Combatting the influx of fentanyl


Fentanyl, a synthetic form of heroin, has become the number one killer in Ohio’s opioid epidemic. Overdoses have overtaken car accidents and other forms of accidental death, and fentanyl is involved in about two-thirds of those overdose deaths. Greater Cincinnati is sadly at the epicenter of this crisis. Congress is taking action to push back.

After two years of work, I’m pleased to report we’re making significant progress on the STOP Act, a bipartisan bill I introduced that will combat the growing influx of fentanyl. Recently, the House of Representatives passed this legislation by an overwhelming bipartisan margin. A Senate committee has now agreed to discharge the STOP Act, and I’m optimistic that the full Senate will vote on this bill in the coming months and send it to the president to be signed into law. We don’t have time to wait because this is a growing crisis that needs to be addressed now.

The stories I hear as I meet with addicts, their families, and first responders on the frontlines of this crisis are heartbreaking, and the recent data for the Cincinnati area is shocking.

The Enquirer reported that our county had 324 fentanyl deaths in 2017 – a more than 1,000 percent increase since 2013. Fentanyl was involved in about 85 percent of opioid overdose deaths in the Hamilton County last year – a 31 percent increase from 2016. That trend appears to be continuing this year as well as more than 90 percent of drugs seized by the county crime lab through the first five months of this year contained fentanyl.

The drug lab at the Hamilton County coroner’s office uses a Gas Chromatograph-Mass Spectrometer to test the various drugs that come into the lab. Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco, Hamilton County coroner, said they are seeing a downward spiral in the number of heroin overdose deaths, but a huge increase in the number of deaths related to fentanyl and fentanyl mixtures. In 2017, the lab processed over 30,000 items related to drug seizures. (Photo: Liz Dufour/The Enquirer)

Whether used on its own or added to other drugs – heroin, methamphetamine, pain pills, cocaine and more – fentanyl has further poisoned the well of the already existing dangers of drug use.

We know where fentanyl is primarily coming from – China – and we know how it is entering our country – the U.S. Postal Service.

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which I chair, conducted an 18-month investigation that revealed how these drugs can be found through a simple Google search and delivered directly to buyers’ doorsteps. We also found that traffickers essentially guarantee delivery through the Postal Service.

Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin, so deadly that a few flakes can be fatal. Because of this, it can be shipped into the U.S. in small packages without being detected – unless law enforcement have information to identify suspicious packages.

The Postal Service, unlike private carriers such as UPS, FedEx, and DHL, is not required to get what is called advance electronic data on international packages entering the U.S. This information, such as where a package is from, where it is going, and its declared contents, allows law enforcement, including Customs and Border Protection, to identify suspicious packages, stop them in transit, test them, and keep more deadly drugs out of our communities.

Because the Postal Service is exempt from the law requiring private carriers to get this data, they have chosen not to. Only recently, after congressional pressure, have they begun getting data on some international packages – but their efforts are inadequate. Last year, they only received data on about 36 percent of the international packages they transported into the country – and even then, the coordination with law enforcement was poor.

According to a recent report, last year Customs and Border Protection seized about 1,500 pounds of fentanyl. In just the first five months of 2018 they seized more than 1,000 pounds, on pace to far surpass last year’s totals. One thousand pounds of fentanyl is enough to kill about a quarter-billion people. That’s only the drugs that were seized, not what makes it into the U.S. undetected. Without providing the data law enforcement need to identify suspicious packages, identifying parcels containing fentanyl is like finding a needle in a haystack.

The Postal Service handles more than four times more international packages per year than UPS, FedEx, and DHL combined. That’s why the STOP Act is so important. It will require the Postal Service to get this data for all packages entering the U.S. By closing the loophole in our mail screening and holding the Postal Service to the same standard as private carriers, we can give law enforcement the tools to keep these dangerous synthetic drugs out of our communities.

We have an opportunity in Congress to enact common-sense legislation that will save lives and help turn the tide of addiction. I’ll continue fighting to get this bill into law so it can begin making a real difference.

Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.

By Sen. Rob Portman

Contributing Column

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