By: Steve Birr
Opioid overdoses and deaths are being fueled by synthetic painkillers like fentanyl flowing in through the mail from China, which a trend expert says is the “homeland security issue of our time.”
Fentanyl, which is roughly 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, is now the deadliest drug in America. The potent substance can kill in even the smallest doses and is being cut into heroin, and increasingly cocaine supplies, across the country. The fatal painkiller is coming in through international mail and private carriers from China and Hong Kong, where the majority of fentanyl is produced globally, making detection and seizure of the drug extremely difficult, reports Williamson Daily News.
At the height of the cocaine boom in America, shipments were often smuggled in container shipments arriving at the Port of Miami. Now suppliers can simply ship deadly narcotics by hiding the drugs in everyday mail.
“This is something that can fit in an envelope, and that’s why we have to be more nimble about tracing the supply chain,” Juliette Kayyem, who served in the Obama administration as assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs in the Department of Homeland Security, told Williamson Daily News. “The postal system is a vulnerability that can be manipulated. This isn’t like boats of cocaine that can only go to a certain island. Every post office now becomes like the Port of Miami.”
Despite the uphill battle for law enforcement against fentanyl distributors, agents are becoming better at identifying narcotics shipments at entry points for U.S. mail. Officers at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where 60 percent of all U.S.-bound international mail passes through, say increased resources for package screenings are dramatically boosting their success rate.
A year ago, drug agents stationed at JFK Airport only had an X-ray machine to work with, resulting in the seizure of just seven fentanyl shipments. The agents now have a number of K-9 units specifically trained to detect fentanyl and a handheld laser that can detect what kind of drug is inside a package. Officials say in the 2017 fiscal year agents confiscated 80 packages containing fentanyl.
Officials warn, however, that much of the illicit drugs coming into the U.S. still get lost among the estimated 1 million packages that come through JFK Airport everyday.
The National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released its first preliminary report in August giving an accounting of drug overdose deaths in 2016. The CDC estimates that drug deaths rose by more than 22 percent in 2016, with 64,070 Americans suffering a fatal overdose that year, driven primarily by fentanyl.
Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under 50.