How to stop the opioid crisis

By Tom Ridge
NORWICH, CT - MARCH 23:  Oxycodone pain pills prescribed for a patient with chronic pain lie on display on March 23, 2016 in Norwich, CT. Communities nationwide are struggling with the unprecidented opioid pain pill and heroin addiction epidemic. On March 15, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), announced guidelines for doctors to reduce the amount of opioid painkillers prescribed, in an effort to curb the epidemic. The CDC estimates that most new heroin addicts first became hooked on prescription pain medication before graduating to heroin, which is stronger and cheaper.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Just over a month ago, I wrote in these pages about how the synthetic drugs fueling the opioid epidemic have flooded through Michigan. This is happening in too many states across the country with tragic results, and the headlines have continued. In Detroit, a grandmother was charged this month for leaving fentanyl accessible to her eight-year-old grandson, who fatally overdosed last summer. In Calhoun County, the public health department just reported that fentanyl-related deaths have more than quadrupled since 2015. And criminals continue to smuggle drugs into and throughout the state, threatening families in the Midwest and across the country.

Amid this grim news we have signs of progress. Last week, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives came to an agreement on the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act, legislation by Michigan’s own Congressman Mike Bishop designed to close a major security loophole in the global postal system that has fueled the opioid epidemic. And the House just passed the bill, bringing us one step closer to cutting off the flow of dangerous drugs.

Under current law, international packages delivered by private carriers must include advance electronic data, or AED — basic security data that law enforcement needs to screen packages for dangerous material, including drugs, biohazards or other threats. But packages sent via foreign postal services and delivered by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) are not required to include AED. That’s left Customs and Border Protection without the tools they need to efficiently screen and stop fentanyl at its ports of entry. And it gives drug smugglers easy access to reach the U.S. It’s a pipeline for drug trafficking, which is why you see drug busts where unimaginable amounts of drugs are seized — such as the raid of a Michigan-based drug ring in April that netted enough fentanyl to kill a quarter million people. Fortunately, the STOP Act will help put a stop to this by requiring AED on all packages, including those sent by the USPS.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this development. The postal service isn’t just an easier option for drug smuggling — it’s the preferred method of shipment. In January, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a bipartisan report on this threat. The report found that online drug markets, a common source of fentanyl, actually recommend using USPS for mailing drugs, describing private carriers as “not safe” because the opioids “will be detained quickly.” It’s not hard to see why. With over a million packages entering the country each day without AED — an impossible number for CBP agents to screen with their current capabilities — drug traffickers have a tried and true method for reaching American communities.

A solution like the STOP Act is long overdue. The bill is backed by groups who know the devastating impact of the opioid epidemic far too well, including the Fraternal Order of Police, the American Medical Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures. Now that the House has passed the bill, we expect the Senate to vote to send this critical legislation to the president’s desk soon. This progress comes thanks to the tireless work of congressional leaders from both parties. Rep. Bishop’s leadership on the House Ways and Means Committee helped ensure the legislation is effective and gives CBP the comprehensive tools it needs to keep toxic drugs out of Michigan neighborhoods.

Efforts at treatment and prevention, no matter how well-meaning, won’t be effective if we can’t keep the deadliest drugs out of American homes in the first place. Passing the STOP Act is one step of many needed to fight the opioid crisis. And by closing the postal loophole, we may finally be able to do just that.

Tom Ridge was the 43rd governor of Pennsylvania and first U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, and is a senior adviser to Americans for Securing All Packages, a coalition dedicated to closing the loophole in the global postal system.