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Opinion | Juliette Kayyem

Opioid addiction is our homeland security problem

Globe Staff/ Adobe Stock

I’ve worked nearly my whole life in national security, and have seen our country face countless threats, from terrorist attacks to natural disasters. But few crises have been as wide in scale, or as personal, as the opioid epidemic. Last year 72,000 people died of drug overdoses. Particularly devastating has been the growing prevalence of the deadliest synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, which can be over 50 times as powerful as heroin. This trend has hit New England especially hard. In Massachusetts, an astounding 90 percent of fatal overdoses involved fentanyl, according to the state Department of Public Health.

So if you ask me what is the greatest threat to our homeland — terror, climate change, pandemics — it would be difficult to ignore the one that is killing our citizens every single day.


Homeland security is about minimizing the risk to our nation. Much of how we think about homeland security focuses on family separation policies, debates about the wall, or long lines at the airport. We focus government efforts on systems of vulnerability — land crossings, air travel, water navigation — because we need them to move people as efficiently as possible, but also to protect our nation from the bad people or things that can abuse those systems.

So, in these days of outrage and disagreement and even for those of us who have fundamental disagreements with the president, it is worth taking a pause for some good, bipartisan news. President Trump is about to sign a broad package of legislation designed to fight the opioid crisis, which passed 99-1 in the Senate and 353-52 in the House of Representatives. The overwhelming support for the legislations suggests that few communities — and few congressional districts — are untouched by the opioid crisis.


The new law focuses on how these drugs are getting here. It includes the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, or STOP, which was written to cut off drugs like fentanyl at their source. These synthetic opioids are commonly manufactured abroad and reach the United States through the mail. While international deliveries sent through private carriers are required to include advance electronic data, or AED, which is used by Customs and Border Protection to screen and stop dangerous material, packages sent through the global postal system are not. That has meant over 1.3 million packages delivered by the Postal Service every day without the comprehensive security information that law enforcement officers need to intercept fentanyl shipments. Criminals have exploited this loophole, dodging AED requirements to ship opioids to drug dealers in the United States, or right to American doorsteps.

The STOP Act will finally require comprehensive AED on all packages sent from abroad. That’s not to say the fight is over — drug traffickers will continue to innovate, and we must still ensure the STOP Act is fully implemented and enforced in a timely manner.

Criminals have been well aware of this postal loophole and are taking advantage of it to make money and kill Americans in the process. A new report from the inspector general of the postal service found that over 90 percent of online drug dealers selling through the “dark web” deliver through the postal service. There is no single solution to this homeland security crisis. But no solution would be complete without a focus on how the supply of drugs is getting to this country. And it’s time we made it that much harder on those who are using our mailboxes to kill our neighbors and families.


Juliette Kayyem, CEO of Zemcar and on the faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is the cochair of Americans for Securing All Packages and is a homeland security expert.