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Why Drug Runners Love the U.S. Postal Service
US Postal Service letter carrier places letters in a mailbox as he walks his delivery route July 30, 2009 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Why Drug Runners Love the U.S. Postal Service

Arthur Herman & John P. Walters

When you think of drug trafficking, the neighborhood mailman probably isn’t what springs to mind. But thanks to archaic international rules and outdated systems, the U.S. Postal Service is unwittingly facilitating the spread of illicit pharmaceuticals—at taxpayers’ expense.

The USPS delivers packages from all over the world with few questions asked. As international shipping has exploded in the past decade, especially from China, the postal service and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been overwhelmed by the size and scale of the screening problem.

How bad is it? Last year the consulting firm LegitScript did 29 test buys from illegal online pharmacies. Every illicit package, most originating in India, was sent through a government-sponsored shipping service. Once they reached American soil, all were delivered by the USPS. Customs didn’t stop or intercept any of them.

One obstacle lies in the obscure regulations of the Universal Postal Union, the United Nations agency empowered to coordinate international shipments. Under its rules, the USPS must deliver international mail to its final destination, unless directed otherwise by a law-enforcement agency like Customs and Border Protection. Companies overseas that send packages to the U.S. are required to supply customs information, but many parcels come into the country without proper forms, let alone electronic-tracking data. Drug traffickers have been clever about disguising their shipments with labels like “shampoo” or, in the case of a pill press, “hole puncher.” Overworked agents can’t identify every suspicious package in customs sheds that more and more resemble the warehouse scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

The worst part is that American taxpayers wind up subsidizing many shipments from overseas. The Universal Postal Union’s 192 member entities are divided into groups, based on their level of economic development. This division affects the amount each country pays in terminal dues—the fees they give a foreign postal service for carrying packages to their final destinations.

In practice, this often becomes a subsidy. For example, the USPS gets less money for carrying a China Post package from the Port of Los Angeles to its destination than it would charge a U.S. company for the same delivery. A December report from the USPS inspector general found that China Post Airmail was being charged $2.67 for a 200-gram (roughly half-pound) package. The postal service’s website gives a quote of $5.07 to send the same package domestically. China has taken advantage of this loophole to build its small-package e-commerce business, since companies there can offer free shipping and still make money.

Unfortunately, that e-commerce business has come to include illegal drugs like flakka and fentanyl. One way to reduce the flow would be to require advance electronic data for all inbound foreign packages. Private express carriers such as UPS, FedEx and DHL are required to do that now. This is one reason why they have near-universal rates of compliance when it comes to reporting customs information and screening suspicious packages—and one reason why the LegitScript study found none of the illegal drugs were sent via private carrier.

Congress should require the USPS to collect this data from foreign counterparts and share it with Customs and Border Protection as well as other federal agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration. The cost to USPS would be negligible: It already has an electronic tracking system for domestic packages, including those outbound to other countries. Nations like China might incur costs bringing their systems up to date, but that would begin to make up for the years Americans have subsidized the massive growth of their e-commerce business.

The U.S. should also insist on reforms of the Universal Postal Union’s system of unfair terminal dues. All four commissioners on the U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission, the independent agency that oversees the USPS, agree that the setup puts America at a disadvantage. But they are, unfortunately, deadlocked on what action to take.

The State Department, which enjoys ultimate authority over issues regarding international mail, has likewise refused to act. So it may fall to the next president to either continue with the status quo, or to force changes that will protect America’s economic competitiveness, its national security, and the health and safety of its communities.

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