An explosion of fentanyl and opioid use in the United States in recent years has led to a staggering number of overdose-related deaths.
The nearly year-long, bipartisan investigation found that drug traffickers “easily” ship fentanyl and other synthetic drugs from China to the U.S., using the international arm of the Postal Service to avoid detection and interdiction by customs authorities.
The current fentanyl crisis is fueled by supplies from China -- the primary source of fentanyl and its precursor chemicals shipped to the U.S., according to a 2016 Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) report.
The congressional report also found that, the Postal Service and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) were “ill-equipped” to prevent drug smugglers from taking advantage of the massive surge in recent years of e-commerce and international mail to ship opioids, said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).
In response to the report the Postal Service said in a statement that it has been cooperating with federal agencies and law enforcement and "will continue to work tirelessly to address this serious societal issue."
The Service said that it has intercepted 880 percent more domestic packages related to opioids between the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years and has intercepted 375 percent more international packages.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Carper lead the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) that produced the report. They began the investigation to find out just how easy it was to find fentanyl online and have it shipped to the U.S. Investigators specifically looked at efforts by the Postal Service, Customs and Border Protection, and the State Department, which is responsible for negotiating treaties and working with international partners to combat the crisis.
“In my home state of Ohio, fentanyl is now the No. 1 killer, surpassing heroin, prescription drugs, and car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death,” Portman said in a statement.
Sixty-six percent of all overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2016 were caused by opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That rate has gone up even since 2014 when the CDC reported that 61 percent of overdose deaths were related to opioids.
Investigators for the committee began by Googling “fentanyl for sale” and emailed with sellers from six different websites over the next three months while posing as first-time buyers. They never completed a purchase because fentanyl is so dangerous, just a tiny amount absorbed through the skin or accidentally inhaled can cause an overdose.
The online sellers said that they preferred to ship any purchases of illicit fentanyl and opioid through the international arm of the Postal Service. They also said that they preferred to be paid through cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, but would also accept other forms of payment, such as Western Union, MoneyGram, PayPal, credit cards, and prepaid gift cards.
Committee investigators then subpoenaed payment information to find out who in the U.S. had purchased from the websites. Using the payment information, the investigators discovered more than 500 financial transactions by more than 300 people in the U.S., with $230,000 going to the six online sellers. They found U.S. buyers in 43 states with the highest number of purchases in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
The street value of those transactions was conservatively around $766 million, according to investigators.
The investigation found that seven people died of fentanyl-related overdoses after receiving packages from one of the online sellers and 18 people who made purchases from one of the websites were arrested on drug-related charges. In one case, a 49-year-old Ohio man died in early 2017 from “acute fentanyl intoxication.” He was found to have sent roughly $2,500 to an online seller over the course of 10 months and received 15 packages through the Postal Service.
One package was received just 30 days before his death.
The report comes a day ahead of a hearing on Capitol Hill where officials from the State Department, Customs and Border Protection, Postal Service and other agencies will testify about the issue and answer questions about the findings.