“A toxicology report confirms fentanyl as the cause of death.” We’re seeing this headline way too often in Ohio. Fentanyl—or synthetic heroin—is now the top killer in the opioid epidemic.
The Columbus area recently reported a 47 percent increase in overdose deaths from 2016 to 2017. A shocking two-thirds of those deaths were from fentanyl. The Cincinnati area experienced a 31 percent increase in overdose deaths last year and more than half were from fentanyl. The same thing is true in rural areas around the state.
In addition to overdose deaths, fentanyl and other opioids are also the leading cause of crime. Earlier this month, the Lawrence County sheriff reported that 95 percent of the people who were incarcerated in that rural county were there for crimes tied to drug use directly or indirectly, as people commit crimes to get money for drugs. Last week, a corrections officer in downtown Cleveland told me the same.
Fentanyl is so deadly because it is so powerful. It is 50 times more potent than heroin and just a few milligrams can kill you. And it is pouring in. Just last week, a little more than a half-pound of fentanyl—about the size of a small plastic bag—was seized when police arrested two suspected drug dealers in the Toledo area. That one seizure was enough fentanyl to kill 160,000 people—more than half the population of Toledo.
While fentanyl is illegal unless prescribed by a physician, it is readily available and relatively cheap. Unbelievably, it is mostly shipped into Ohio through our own U.S. Postal Service from labs in China. We did an 18-month investigation in the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which I chair, and found hundreds of websites openly advertising fentanyl for sale. Online sellers always said their preferred shipment method is the U.S. Postal Service because the risk of seizure by law enforcement like our Customs & Border Protection is small and delivery is essentially guaranteed.
This is because the U.S. Postal Service, unlike private carriers such as UPS, FedEx, and DHL, does not require people to give them information about the packages such as where the package is from, where it’s going, and what’s in it. Having this advance electronic data on international packages entering the country allows law enforcement to identify suspicious packages and stop the shipment of deadly drugs into our communities. Without the information, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.
Private carriers have provided that data on all packages since that 2002 law. Only recently, after congressional pressure, has the Postal Service 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, meaning the United States received more than 318 million international packages with little to no screening at all.
People are dying because drugs are entering our communities so easily. The Postal Service has been reluctant to address this problem on their own, so it is time for Congress to act.
The STOP Act, a bipartisan bill I introduced with Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, will close this loophole and help stop these deadly drugs from being shipped into the U.S. The STOP Act is simple. It will hold the U.S. Postal Service to the same standard as private mail carriers and require that, within one year, they get advance electronic data on all international packages entering the U.S. This bill has the support of one-third of the Senate who have signed on as cosponsors, and President Trump’s opioid commission endorsed it. More than half of the members of the House of Representatives are cosponsors of their companion version of the STOP Act, but there have been efforts in the House to weaken the bill.
Last week, a House committee approved a weaker alternative to the STOP Act that would eliminate the real, enforceable, and immediate requirements of the Postal Service. Their version gives the Postal Service four years to begin collecting data—and only requires 95 percent of packages to have that data. It also gives the federal government the ability to waive the requirement to get data if it is deemed to be in the “national security interest of the United States.”
What is in the national security interests of America is to do all we can to stop this cheap and deadly poison from coming into our communities—and at the very least cut the supply to raise the price on the street.
Of course, we need to take a comprehensive approach to the opioid epidemic, including better prevention and treatment, and I will continue to take a lead on these approaches. But we need to enact the STOP Act into law now to begin pushing back against the flow of synthetic drugs through the mail and address the deadliest killer in our state.
Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.