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Opinion | Juliette Kayyem

A drug loophole was closed. Why isn’t it being enforced?

A Customs and Border Protection officer at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York held a bag later found to be filled with fentanyl.Salwan Georges/Washington Post/File

One year ago, for a brief moment, political party took a back seat to duty, and a bipartisan Congress passed and the president signed “one of the most consequential pieces of legislation” of 2018. The Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Protection Act was designed to close a loophole in a post-9/11 security law that has allowed international drug traffickers to easily ship opioids to the United States without detection — and laid out clear deadlines for doing so.

Deadlines mean something to most of us — in school, at work, or in our personal lives, they set clear dates that cannot be missed without consequences. So as the opioid epidemic continues to rage and kill, it is unthinkable that the federal agencies tasked with implementing the STOP Act failed to meet the requirements set by the law.


This law was crucial and widely supported. For over a decade, international packages delivered by the US Postal Service did not need the advance electronic data, or AED, mandated for packages shipped by private companies. Because Customs and Border Protection and other law enforcement agencies use AED to screen for dangerous shipments, this discrepancy left a gaping loophole that drug dealers and criminals seized on. A bipartisan Senate report found that online opioid traffickers recommended delivery solely through the mail, noting that drugs shipped privately were likely to be intercepted. Together, the loophole and Chinese fentanyl turned the postal service into “perhaps the largest drug-transportation network in the world,” according to The New York Times.

With synthetic drugs that are commonly manufactured abroad increasingly responsible for overdoses, Congress and the Trump administration recognized the urgency of closing this loophole. Under the STOP Act, by the end of 2018 the postal service was required to have AED on all packages from China and on 70 percent of international packages overall. Yet, thanks to a bipartisan Senate letter criticizing the postal service’s failure, we learned that the agency fell significantly short. A Washington Post investigative report over the summer showed that these long-overdue requirements have still not been met.


The law also sets deadlines beyond AED requirements. By now, the secretary of Homeland Security should have prescribed all regulations necessary to implement the law. Meanwhile, the postmaster general and Department of Homeland Security should have already issued reports to Congress on their progress on AED compliance. As these reports have not been made public, Congress needs to demonstrate to the American people that it is holding these federal agencies accountable.

I want to know that our representatives are passing laws not for the sake of populating constituent newsletters, but to make a lasting impact. I don’t doubt the sincerity of anyone fighting the opioid epidemic, but elected officials have a responsibility beyond making speeches and saying the right thing. If the postal service, Customs and Border Protection, or any other agency won’t do what is asked, Congress has the oversight capabilities needed to demand more, and should hold hearings so we can have real transparency. And with the current postmaster general about to retire, Congress has a unique opportunity to demand action on the loophole from the next one.

There is a real-world cost of inaction. Even with opioid prescriptions falling, overdoses remain at historic levels thanks to the incredible potency of synthetic drugs like fentanyl, which can be deadly even in small amounts.


The STOP Act is of course not the only necessary solution to stop international drug shipments. Efforts to curb synthetic opioid manufacturing and smuggling have been a crucial part of US-China trade negotiations (although with debatable success). And a recent international agreement aimed at standardizing postal rates — though targeted mainly at helping level the playing field for American small businesses and manufacturers — could also help limit drug smugglers who offer cheap shipping for counterfeit opioids. But with the STOP Act already passed, it is unacceptable that it remains largely unenforced.

It’s convenient to think that once we pass a law, the problem is solved and we can wash our hands and move on to the next issue. But that’s not the case here. Every tragic fentanyl overdose or major drug bust is a reminder that the postal opioid pipeline remains open.

Congress and our federal agencies celebrated the bipartisan success of passing the STOP Act. One year later, they need to prove that they haven’t forgotten about it.

Juliette Kayyem, faculty chair of the Homeland Security project at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, was an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2010. She is a senior adviser to Americans for Securing All Packages, a coalition focused on closing the loophole in the global postal system.