(TNS) -- Opioid products like fentanyl and carfentanil, which are many times more powerful and dangerous than heroin, have become well-known by law enforcement and first-responders in Louisville, Lexington and northern Kentucky, where fatal opioid overdoses have become a public health emergency.
There were over 1,400 fatal drug overdoses in Kentucky last year, with fentanyl found in 623 cases. Fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid, is manufactured in China and shipped to the United States. In February, China banned the legal manufacture of fentanyl, carfentanil and other synthetic opioids.
But a former member of the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama said the United States could further curb the flow of synthetic opioids from overseas by requiring countries to provide more detailed data on mail they send to America. Bills that would mandate the collection of such data have been introduced in Congress and are awaiting action.
"What we're addressing is a piece of an epidemic that we all know has many solutions. But, obviously, the supply chain is a major issue," said Juliette Kayyem, who was assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at DHS during the Obama Administration.
The U.S. Postal Service does collect "advance electronic data" on some mail, which includes the sender's name and address, weight, quantity and a description of the contents. According to testimony presented to a Senate homeland security committee in May, Robert Cintron, vice president of network operations for the U.S. Postal Service, advance electronic data has been collected by the U.S. and "other industrialized counties" since 2002.
About 40 percent to 50 percent of mail entering the U.S. contains advance electronic data, Cintron told senators. Organizations such as Americans for Security All Packages are advocating for data collection on all mail entering the United States from overseas that is handled by the Postal Service.
Kayyem, who is a former member of the National Commission on Terrorism, said while other systems were made more secure after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, "there has been almost no movement" in postal security.
Because all countries are not required to provide advanced data on packages handled by USPS, drugs like fentanyl can be mailed "in a small package from China or Russia, and it hits the streets in the U.S.," Kayyem said.
While some private shipping companies require advanced data on packages, USPS does not require advance data from all countries, Kayyem said.
Resistance to requiring advance data for all packages is likely the result of "inertia," Kayyem said.
"'There's no requirement to do it, so why should we do it? Why change when no one is demanding change?'" Kayyem said.
The Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act would require countries to collect advance data on all mail entering the U.S. and being sent through the Postal Service.
"The sending country would obviously bear the cost," Kayyem said. The technology needed to collect and handle the information "is better now than in 2001," she said.
In his statement to the Senate in May, Cintron testified the STOP act would cost the Postal Service $1.2 billion to $4.8 billion over a 10-year period. Cintron said USPS would have to pay new customs fees, but would be unable to recoup the expense from customers. If the Postal Service blocked mail entering the country, other nations could retaliate by blocking mail sent from the U.S., Cintron said.
The Postal Service recommends that specific countries be targeted for advanced data collection, based on "relative security risks" and each country's ability to collect the information, Cintron told senators.
Kayyem said collecting advance data would help crack down on drug trafficking, by giving law enforcement specific information on where drugs like fentanyl were being shipped from, and what addresses they were being shipped to in the U.S.
"That's how you pick up trends -- is there a specific (location) in China that is sending to a particular home in Kentucky," Kayyem said.
"What we do know is no epidemic can ignore the supply chain side of it," she said. If advance data were collected, overseas traffickers "may find another loophole, but that's a success, because you've delayed the movement of the stuff."
The STOP Act proposals in the House and Senate have bipartisan support. "With all the distractions (in Washington), there's an incentive to get something done," Kayyem said. "It's a bipartisan bill, so we're hopeful it can get through. Another piece is President Trump's Opioid Commission ... The president took this issue very seriously in the campaign."
©2017 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.