A law enforcement staff shows confiscated heroin before burning it in the headquarters of the Drug Control Agency in Dushanbe May 30, 2008. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Drug Agents Are Nabbing 40 Percent Of Illicit Painkiller Shipments Spreading Death Across US

STEVE BIRR Vice Reporter
3:49 PM 09/18/2017

Drug agents say they are making progress in the fight against illicit opioids coming into the U.S. through the mail, seizing significantly higher quantities of fentanyl than in 2016.

Fentanyl, a painkiller roughly 30 to 50 times stronger than the average batch of heroin, is flooding the country and blamed as the primary driver of the current opioid epidemic, which claimed a record number of lives in 2016. The substance primarily comes through standard mail from China, making it extremely difficult to detect, but officers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection say they are now seizing roughly 40 percent of fentanyl bound for American streets, reports USA Today.

Officers at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where 60 percent of all U.S.-bound international mail passes through, say increased resources for package screenings are dramatically boosting their success rate.

“We’ve gotten a lot better at figuring out the threat, figuring out where it’s coming from, and identifying those packages that we need to treat as high risk,” Frank Russo, the port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at JFK Airport, told USA Today.

“It’s mainly coming from China and Hong Kong, destined for every part of the United States.”

A year ago, drug agents stationed at JFK Airport only had an X-ray machine to work with, resulting in the seizure of just seven fentanyl shipments. The agents now have a number of K-9 units specifically trained to detect fentanyl and a handheld laser that can detect what kind of drug is inside a package. Agents have already seized 64 shipments of fentanyl this year with the new security tools.

While officials say they are making progress against the illegal drug trade, they are still fighting an uphill battle. Much of the illicit drugs coming into the U.S. still get lost among the estimated 1 million packages that come through JFK Airport everyday.

The National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), released its first preliminary report in August giving an accounting of drug overdose deaths in 2016. The CDC estimates that drug deaths rose by more than 22 percent in 2016, with 64,070 Americans suffering a fatal overdose that year. Opioid deaths rose from 33,000 in 2015 to nearly 50,000 in 2016, driven primarily by fentanyl use.

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under 50.