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Catching Fentanyl Shipments Is "Death By A Thousand Cuts"

By Kelly Burch 06/07/18

“You used to have the tractor-trailer running up the interstate, that had to be met by someone and distributed. Now, you have an individual sitting somewhere in middle America ordering this thing, and it arrives as a parcel at their house.”

man receiving delivery

Despite knowing that fentanyl is being shipped into the United States using the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and FedEx, law enforcement officials are largely unable to stop trafficking of the deadly synthetic opioid. 

“The sheer logistical nature of trying to pick out which packages contain opioids makes it much more challenging,” Robert E. Perez, an acting executive assistant commissioner at United States Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, told The New York Times. “It’s unlike anything we’ve encountered.”

Fentanyl shipments are difficult to detect because they are so small. A dose of fentanyl the size of a grain of sand can be deadly, and since it is powerful in such small amounts drug dealers can turn a huge profit shipping tiny packages.

“When you’re dealing with very small, minute quantities, it’s kind of like death by a thousand cuts,” said Patrick J. Lechleitner, the special agent in charge of the Washington office of Homeland Security Investigations, a division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

A kilogram of cut fentanyl costs about $80,000, and can be sold on the street for a profit of $1.6 million, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), making it about 20 times as profitable as heroin. 

“This is what makes the opioid crisis so unique and dangerous,” said Peter Vincent, who led ICE’s international operations during the Obama administration. “Traditionally, law enforcement has focused on large quantities of drugs like marijuana and cocaine. But very small amounts of opioids can bring tremendous profits.”

In addition, the fact that fentanyl can be shipped directly to residential addresses after it is bought online makes it even more difficult to intercept. 

“You used to have the tractor-trailer running up the interstate, with its contraband, that had to be met by someone and distributed,” Lechleitner said. “Now, you have an individual sitting somewhere in middle America ordering this thing, and it arrives as a parcel at their house.”

Authorities have made some progress in stopping fentanyl shipments, most of which are said to come from China and Mexico. Last year, border security seized 1,485 pounds of fentanyl, and this year they have already seized 1,060 pounds of the drug. People have been arrested and charged after receiving mail-order fentanyl shipments. 

This year, President Trump and Congress have approved more than $80 million to aid in the detection of opioids. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said that the funding is key to making a difference in the amount of deadly opioids reaching Americans.  

“There’s no doubt that more funding is an important component if we’re going to make real progress,” said Portman. 

Despite that, many border officials continue to feel like they’re looking for a needle in a haystack when it comes to detecting fentanyl shipments. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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