When Scotty Mays craved opiates, he didn’t arrange to meet a local dealer in a darkened Dayton alley.
Instead, Mays had an acquaintance navigate to a dark spot on the Internet and place his order anonymously with an overseas outfit.
“Basically you just need a little computer knowledge and some money,” said Mays, 41, who with another, ordered bulk packages of pain pills. “We would have it shipped to a vacant house. Nobody would be living there but the post office didn’t know that.”
Postal carriers have become unwitting mules in the flow of drugs into the Miami Valley.
Officials say overseas shippers — many from China — are exploiting a loophole in U.S. law that allows packages to enter this country through the mail virtually unchecked.
"You could get anything you wanted on the Dark Web. Anything. And that's no exaggeration," said Mays, who says he's been clean a year after a 16-year addiction.
A ‘way better deal’
Most of the Chinese product comes to Ohio through long established channels: Mexican drug cartels, which buy the drugs in bulk and smuggle it north, often cutting it along the way into heroin or pressing it into tablets looking like common prescription pain pills.
But an increasing number of users are skipping the middle man, helped in that process by weak laws over the packaging of products shipped through the mail. Users who hide their identities place orders with online black market merchants that peddle guns, drugs and whatever sells.
Nearly a million packages a day enter the U.S. Postal Service system from other countries, and more than 90 percent of them come without advanced electronic data — the shipper’s name and address, a description of the contents and a package’s weight — that law enforcement says could help stem the flow of drugs from overseas labs.
The rapid rise of extremely dangerous synthetic opioids like fentanyl in America and the skyrocketing number of overdose deaths can be traced to China’s large chemical and pharmaceutical industries, according to a new report by the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission. Those labs produce vast quantities of the synthetic opioid and its analogues for export with little regulatory oversight, the report says.
Increased police patrols or money spent to target high drug areas would seem to have little effect on this type of drug traffic. Mays’ drugs typically arrived packaged inside 8½ by 11 Manila envelopes.
“They definitely had some Asian writing on there,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you what the return address was or anything like that.”
His standard order was 190 Percocets that cost $200. On the street, a single pill might go for $30, he said.
Ordering the pills online, said Mays, was “a way better deal.”
Though drugs have been shipped through the mail for years, the extent to which people are using the Internet and postal service to get ever-potent opioids from abroad is a recent development, said Tim Plancon, special agent in charge of the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s Detroit Field Division overseeing Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio.
"It's really pretty new — delivering it directly. That's not to say it didn't happen in the past, but not to the significance of now," Plancon said. "It's just so dangerous if this stuff goes airborne through the mail."
Plancon said trafficker profits on synthetic opioids can be enormous. And some manufacturers skirt the law by changing the chemical makeup ever so slightly to avoid a product ban in the U.S., allowing for semi-legitimate sales.
“Sometimes a kilogram can be as little as $3,500-$4,000 for some of these and the return on investment could be in the millions,” he said. “A kilo of heroin could be, say 10,000 hits, but a kilo of fentanyl could be 100 times that. It takes much less fentanyl, the equivalent the size of a few grains of salt to overdose.”
A DEA fentanyl report shows that 666,666 counterfeit pills can be pressed from a kilo of pure fentanyl. At the online rate Mays paid per pill, a trafficker could collect more than $700,000 minus expenses. On the street, the initial kilo could pull in nearly $20 million assuming every pill went for $30.
Illicitly manufactured synthetic opioids took 5,544 lives in 2014 and increased a stunning 72.2 percent in 2015 when 9,580 deaths were reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Deaths from all opioids numbered 33,091 in 2015, the last year for which complete national data are available.
Americans are sure to be jarred again when 2016 fentanyl deaths are finalized by the CDC. State records show 1,155 Ohioans died with fentanyl in their systems in 2015, including 185 in Montgomery County. With 77 autopsies from 2016 yet to be finalized and counted, the Montgomery County coroner had already ruled 181 deaths related to fentanyl or analogues.
Not all shipments into the U.S. are lightly regulated.
Before a package is shipped, private express carriers like FedEx and UPS must submit customs and advance security data as well as Air Cargo Advance Screening information to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Transportation Security Administration and other agencies.
But 191 foreign postal services that ship into the U.S. are not required to supply that information, though there are efforts underway to tighten the regulations.
Two Ohio Republican lawmakers — Columbus area Rep. Pat Tiberi and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman — co-sponsored companion legislation last session to apply more stringent rules to parcels coming from foreign post offices, but the bills didn’t advance.
Portman said the Senate bill, the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act, will be re-introduced this session.
“It lets authorities know what’s likely to be a suspicious package and detect those drugs before it’s too late.” Portman said. “The best proof of this is the drug dealers choose not to use FedEx or UPS or other private carriers because they don’t want to provide that information.”
Portman is also pushing bipartisan legislation that would create a federal entity with the ability to quickly outlaw new synthetic analogues.
“The concern is the traffickers just find another chemist, change the molecular compound, and get out from under the illegality because it’s no longer a scheduled drug,” he said. “The chemists work faster than Congress does.”
Families of Addicts (FOA), a local non-profit group supporting those dealing with the crushing opioid epidemic, has joined Americans for Securing All Packages, a national coalition of health care advocates, security experts, industry groups and businesses working to close the loophole.
Lori Erion, founder and executive director of FOA, said regardless of the source, opioids coming into the Miami Valley are more potent than ever and having yet another easy way for a user to get them is a grave concern.
“The days of the cartel coming up and doing their thing I don’t think are necessarily over, but now we’ve got a new source,” Erion said. “They are making them in China and other places where there’s no regulation of the postal system whatsoever, so it’s much easier to purchase these types of drugs off the dark web and get them mailed to your own home or a vacant home.”
Juliette Kayyem, a security analyst and senior advisor for Americans for Securing All Packages, said the postal service is “the most untouched system in terms of safety and security” since 9/11. After the terrorist attacks that day, nearly every facet of homeland security was re-examined.
Knowing a package’s shipper, address of origin and what’s inside would provide another layer of security and information to allow postal inspectors to determine whether a shipment requires further screening or halt a delivery altogether, said Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs in the Department of Homeland Security.
“This is what we do in passenger airlines. We know who’s coming in before they land. You don’t want them to get here and discover two hours later they’re a threat … It would also provide the capability for intelligence agencies to do what we call ‘denied party screening,’ which is essentially a no-fly list for addresses,” she said. “Obviously this can be manipulated by someone hell bent on getting stuff into this country. If there is a certain region in China or certain streets in China we know are producing this, it becomes much easier to begin to focus the package screening.”
Closing the loophole would also help U.S. companies protect intellectual property rights from bad actors around the world. Americans for Securing All Packages is supported by heavy hitters in the pharmaceutical and music industries whose bottom lines are impacted by counterfeit products and creative works bootlegged and sold without collecting royalties.
"The vulnerability of the supply chain has been a gaping hole for 15 years," she said. "In the last couple of years we've seen this massive synthetic opioid crisis far exceed terrorism as an issue for most Americans and a risk for most Americans."
In addition to China, packages from Russia, India and other countries should face similar scrutiny, according to the organization Kayyem represents.
Plancon said DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg recently returned from China, where he sought more cooperation with Chinese counter-narcotics authorities in tamping down the flow of synthetic opioids and related chemicals.
“By no means is China intentionally doing this,” Plancon said. “We’re working with the Chinese government pretty much as we speak and long before to curtail some of this stuff being imported in.”
In 2015, China added 116 synthetic chemicals — including six fentanyl products — to its list of controlled substances. Many fentanyl precursors, however, continue to lack oversight and new substances are continually developed that don’t come under regulatory purview.
A ‘very scary situation’
Mays says fueling his drug habit through mail shipments wasn’t anxiety free.
He and the acquaintance rotated the orders to about a half-dozen vacant dwellings and staked out whichever house had the most recent order.
“It’s a very scary situation … there’s adrenaline, there’s anxiety,” Mays said. “The drive home you’re looking through your rear-view mirror. Everybody’s a cop. Until you get inside the confines of your own house and you’re isolated, that’s truly when you feel that relief. And then an hour later more relief comes to you.”
Mays knows he’s lucky — not just that he wasn’t arrested, but that he managed to stay alive.
“I never got a bad one,” he said of the shipments he received through the mail. “They were pressed just like you would find them here. Did it cross my mind it could have been laced with something that could have killed me? Briefly. But I also had that mentality that that’s not going to happen to me, just like every other drug addict.”
WHIO Reports to air on this topic Feb. 19:
Reporters Jim Otte and Chris Stewart talk with Families of Addicts’ Lori Erion and Scotty Mays about the loophole critics say makes it too easy to get dangerous drugs from overseas.
• Radio: 6 a.m. on WZLR 99.3 FM; 6:30 a.m. on WHKO 99.1 FM; 8:30 a.m. on WHIO radio, News 95.7 FM and AM 1290.
• TV: 11:30 a.m. on WHIO-TV Channel 7.
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