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Insights: Former Homeland Security chief calls mailboxes a gateway for drugs

March 26, 2017 Updated: March 27, 2017 at 9:10 am
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Tanah Turner prepares packages for her route at the downtown post office on Tuesday, December 13, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

The government probably would rather I didn't tell you this, and maybe I shouldn't. But former Penn. Gov. Tom Ridge, the nation's first Homeland Security secretary, told me this in my kitchen. In my book that gives me clearance.

I was on the phone with him when Ridge said the government-run postal systems in the United States and abroad do a remarkably lousy job of screening the mail for drugs.

On one hand, that means if you want to send a couple of doobies to your buddy in Alabama, your odds of getting away with it are pretty good. That's not encouragement, and it assumes your package isn't bound in baling twine and smells like a Phish concert.

Sure, postal inspectors nabbed 7,990 packages containing marijuana in 2014, but put that in perspective: The U.S. Postal Service handles 5,890 pieces of mail a second, more than 509 million pieces of mail a day. And postal inspectors can't open your mail without a search warrant, so they're pretty picky.

The boys in blue who bring your bills, birthday cards and the sale circulars from Big Lots are part of an unwitting pipeline for drugs much harder than weed. The cartels and drug traffickers barely have to lift a finger, other than to affix postage.

A Coloradan so inclined could go online today and buy carfentanil, the world's most powerful opioid. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration describes it as "10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl, which itself is 50 times more potent than heroin."

"There's so much talk about weapons of mass destruction, but I got to tell you, when you've got 30,000 to 40,000 people dying every year of opioid overdoses, that sounds to me like these synthetics are a weapon of mass destruction," Ridge said.

Drug users and pushers need only an internet connection to move their dope from China, Russia or India to their front door.

The man whose name became synonymous with national security after 9/11 is working with a bipartisan coalition called Americans for Securing All Packages, or ASAP, along with Juliette Kayyem, an assistant DHS secretary and a national security expert for former President Barack Obama.

The coalition of organizations in ASAP is broad, from drugmaker Allergan and Families of Addicts to Sony Music and the Wyoming Truckers Association.

Colorado is noticeably absent from the conversation.

ASAP is supporting the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act, which was introduced in Congress in February.

So far none of Colorado's U.S. House or Senate members have signed on as co-sponsors, though eight senators and 59 House members have.

Access to opioids is a life-or-death issue in Colorado.

Drug overdose fatalities skyrocketed by 68 percent from 2002 to 2014, according to a report last year by the Colorado Health Institute. In 2014, Colorado had 899 overdose deaths. That year, there were 488 traffic fatalities.

Colorado's rate of illicit drug fatalities was 16.3 deaths per 100,000 in population in 2014. The national average that year was 14.7. Twelve Colorado counties, including Denver and Pueblo, had more than 20 overdose deaths per 100,000 people.

The Colorado leadership on the issue is in the Statehouse. Two bipartisan bills are aimed at combating the state's opioid crisis.

Senate Bill 193 would use $1 million from the state's pot taxes to establish a national addiction prevention and research center at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center at the CU Anschutz Campus in Aurora.

Senate Bill 74 would create a two-year pilot program in Pueblo and Routt counties to provide more access to opioid addiction medications in conjunction with behavioral therapy.

Both bills passed the Senate unanimously last Wednesday and move to the House for deliberations.

Ridge said that after 9/11, FedEx, UPS and DHL and other private couriers were required to use security tracking codes and shipment algorithms for a database that flags suspicious packages for a closer look.

Drug dealers are smart enough to find the soft spots in the system.

"If you send it through the Chinese postal system or the U.S. postal system, it comes in carte blanche," he said. "They've got an easy gateway into the United States."

Ridge said the U.S. Postal Service has the technical infrastructure to join the private couriers, but the U.S. needs to demand the security data from senders and foreign government mail services. Inspectors also need clear authority to open suspicious packages.

"If you want to send legal packages to America, you ought to be willing to give us that data," he said.

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