China’s announcement Thursday that it is ready to work with the United States in fighting illicit opioid shipments came amid hearings chaired by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) decrying the ease in which such packages can make their way through the U.S. Postal System.
The announcement by China came after congressional investigators found that Chinese opioid manufacturers exploit weak screening in the postal service to ship large quantities of illegal drugs to American dealers.
“Anti-drug coordination is one of the highlights of China-U.S. law enforcement cooperation,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing. “We stand ready to work with the U.S. to enhance our coordination in this field.”
In an opening statement earlier this week to the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which he chairs, Portman said, “In my home state of Ohio, fentanyl and its variations were involved in almost 60 percent of all overdose deaths in 2016. The vast majority of illegal fentanyl is purchased online from labs in China and then shipped to the United States through the mail.”
Portman added, “After our initial May 2017 hearing, we set out to find out just how easy it is to purchase fentanyl online and how it was shipped to the United States. We discovered it is shockingly easy – all we had to do to was search ‘fentanyl for sale.’ That simple search returned hundreds of websites, many affiliated with Chinese labs, all openly advertising illegal drugs.”
In a yearlong probe published Wednesday, Senate investigators found that Chinese sellers, who openly market opioids such as fentanyl to U.S. buyers, are pushing delivery through the U.S. postal system. The sellers are taking advantage of a failure by the postal service to fully implement an electronic data system that would help authorities identify suspicious shipments.
At a time of massive growth in postal shipments from China due to e-commerce, the investigators found that the postal system received the electronic data on just over a third of all international packages, making more than 300 million packages in 2017 much harder to screen. Data in the Senate report shows no significant improvement during 2017 despite the urgency.
The U.S. Postal Service said it has made dramatic progress in the last year in total packages with opioids seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“The Postal Service will continue to work tirelessly to address this serious societal issue,” spokesman David Partenheimer said in a statement.
He said implementing the use of electronic data is slowed by the need to negotiate with international partners, but the service is making progress.
The Senate probe matches many of the findings of a 2016 investigation by The Associated Press that detailed unchecked production in China of some of the world’s most dangerous drugs.
AP reporters found multiple sellers willing to ship carfentanil — an opioid used as an elephant tranquilizer that is so potent it has been considered a chemical weapon. The sellers also offered advice on how to evade screening by U.S. authorities.
Researchers on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations also contacted Chinese sellers directly. The sellers preferred payment in Bitcoin.
Investigators traced the online sellers to seven U.S. opioid deaths and 18 drug arrests. The Senate has cleared the report to be handed over to law enforcement.
In one case, the investigators traced orders from an online seller in China to a Michigan man who wired $200 in November 2016. The next month he received a package from someone identified by the investigators as a Pennsylvania-based distributor. A day later, the Michigan man died of an overdose from drugs, including a chemical similar to fentanyl.
The huge influx of opioids has led to a wave of overdose deaths across the U.S. in recent years. Portman noted that fentanyl now kills more people in his home state than heroin.
“The federal government can, and must, act to shore up our defenses against this deadly drug and help save lives,” he said.