Synthetic Opioids Are Making Their Way Into The US Via The Postal Service

By Zachary Siegel 12/30/16

The Postal Service's inconsistent mail screening process makes it easier for illegal opioids to get into the country at alarming rates. 

USPS mail truck

On the campaign trail and during his victory rallies, President-elect Donald J. Trump has said that building a wall on the Mexico border will stop drugs from “pouring” into the United States. 

But a border wall won’t stop illicit fentanyl from flooding into towns and cities through what is arguably the most colossal distributor of drugs in the country: the United States Postal Service.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used to treat cancer and end of life pain. It’s several times stronger than heroin. But the fentanyl showering into the U.S. is not FDA approved. Federal authorities believe the potent chemical is manufactured in clandestine labs in China and Mexico. 

A report in the Boston Globe found that illegally manufactured fentanyl purchased on the dark web is contributing to swelling mortality rates in Massachusetts. The fentanyl problem is so widespread that during the third quarter of 2016, the super potent opioid caused a startling 74% of opioid-related overdose deaths that went through a toxicology test. That’s up from 66% during the second quarter of this year. 

The Globe’s report points out just how easy it is for anyone with a computer to receive a package of fentanyl on their doorstep. “Buyers need no more than a computer, a click of a mouse, and delivery to their mailboxes,” wrote Globe staffer Brian MacQuarrie. 

A company called LegitScript, a consulting firm, shows the ease with which illegal drugs are purchased online and shipped through the mail. In 2015, LegitScript made 29 purchases from illegal pharmacies in India. “All 29 of the packages were delivered by the Postal Service after failing to be intercepted by customs,” the Globe reported. 

The fentanyl problem “is as disruptive to our country as any terrorist act has been,” Juliette Kayyem, who teaches at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, told the Globe

Kayyem, also a former assistant Homeland Security secretary, said that some 340 million pieces of unchecked mail passes through the Postal Service and U.S. Customs without screening. 

“The Postal Service shares the goal of those calling for expanding efforts to keep dangerous drugs out of the US mail system,” David Partenheimer, a Postal Service spokesman, wrote in an email to the Globe

The Postal Service, along with federal government, has yet to detail concrete plans to intercept packages containing deadly fentanyl. 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.