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First Look

Chinese sellers exploit US Postal Service to distribute opioids

According to a yearlong Senate probe, the US Postal Service has failed to fully screen packages, allowing high-power opioids from China to reach American customers in the mail. Many of these drugs, including fentanyl, are more potent than heroine. 

Forensic chemist Emily Dye handles fentanyl analogs seized in drug raids at the Drug Enforcement Agency in Sterling, Va. Senate investigators have found that Chinese sellers have used the US Postal Service to distribute the powerful opioid.
Cliff Owen/AP/File
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  • Desmond Butler and Erica Kinetz
    Associated Press

China said Thursday it is ready to work with the United States in fighting illicit opioid shipments after congressional investigators found that Chinese opioid manufacturers exploit weak screening in the US Postal Service to ship large quantities of illegal drugs to American dealers.

"Anti-drug coordination is one of the highlights of China-US law enforcement cooperation," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing. "We stand ready to work with the US to enhance our coordination in this field."

In a yearlong probe published Wednesday, Senate investigators found that Chinese sellers, who openly market opioids such as fentanyl to US buyers, are pushing delivery through the US 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 US Postal Service said it has made dramatic progress in the last year in total packages with opioids seized by US 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 US 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 US 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 US in recent years. Republican Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, the subcommittee's chairman, 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.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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