Dope by mail: Another challenge for the Postal Service


The U.S Postal Service’s financial and other operational challenges regularly are in the news. Less well-known is its illicit drug problem.

Thanks to the internet, anyone can now become a drug dealer. One no longer need join a criminal gang and suffer a violent initiation ceremony. Technological disintermediation means any schlub can order synthetic drugs online and peddle them. Supply sources can be found in the dark corners of the web, with deals sometimes done through anonymous routers and bitcoin.

Crazily enough, the mules can be decidedly low-tech: unwitting mail carriers. Overseas pharmacies disguise containers of fentanyl, flakka and other nasty drugs as licit products and drop the small parcels into their government-run posts. Our Postal Service then brings them to customers’ doors and post office boxes. One study of 29 illicit foreign drug shops found that all of them delivered via the mail rather than a private shipper.

The Senate recently held a discussion on the subject, and Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, all spoke of the havoc the online drug trade has wreaked on their home states. In Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, which comprises Cleveland, 12 individuals died from fentanyl overdose over a five-day period in March. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., noted that his nephew died from an overdose.

Why bad drugs are coming to America via the postman is straightforward: foreign pharmacies and dealers find government posts ask fewer questions. Private delivery companies, like DHL and UPS, demand foreign shippers provide all sorts of data each time they send something. Foreign government posts do not have such high standards. As a result, the Postal Service and law-enforcement authorities lack data that could be used to identify foreign drug mills.

Using drug-sniffing dogs and opening each package to inspect the contents won’t work. As postal expert Don Soifer observes:

With 275 million packages entering the U.S. last year through international mail and express delivery companies, physically inspecting every one is not realistic. Some strategic screening upon entry is essential… [I]nformation about the sender and package contents, received electronically and in advance of the shipment, is essential to this screening. It allows federal officials to strategically target packages for inspection, which according to customs makes their security much more effective.

These data, as a customs officer told the Senate committee, are very useful in drug-trade interdiction. The Postal Service, unfortunately, reports that it cannot demand that foreign posts require these data from shippers. Instead, it must work through the Universal Postal Union, a United Nations agency that brokers agreements between the world’s various government postal operations. The UPU, whose website home page looks like it was built in 1998, has a reputation for being a dilatory body riven by parochial politics. Its current response to the illicit-shipments problem is a public-relations campaign telling people, in essence, “Don’t ship dangerous stuff.”

There are no easy answers to this problem. Drug legalization might reduce the public demand for these rotten overseas concoctions. But that would do nothing to address the more rudimentary problem: the insecurity of the government mails. A lot of it moves in and out of the nation — USPS handled 940 million international mail pieces last year.

Which prompts the question: what would happen if the USPS simply refused to accept parcels from nations (e.g., China) that have low parcel-security-acceptance standards? Certainly, the revenue hit would be tiny. The USPS received $2.8 billion in international revenues in 2015, which is only about 4 percent of its total cash haul for the year. And a good chunk of those revenues were for delivering international letter mail (as opposed to packages).

Undeniably, it’s an impolitic question to ask. But with Americans dying daily from synthetic drugs, it’s worth putting out there.


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