NEW YORK — Government busts of fentanyl — an illegal, deadly, synthetic opioid — at the largest international mailing facility in the U.S. have skyrocketed over the past two years.
At the JFK Airport International Mailing Facility, which inspects about 60 percent of all parcels coming into the U.S. from abroad, there were just six fentanyl seizures in the 2016 fiscal year. In the current fiscal year, that number has risen to more than 70 so far.
Fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than morphine.
In its legal form, fentanyl is prescribed as transdermal patches to cancer patients experiencing severe, ongoing pain. Unlike other opioids, on the street, fentanyl isn't distributed as a tablet.
In its purest form, fentanyl is an extremely potent, concentrated white powder. In the illicit drug market, it is used to cut heroin and cocaine. Because fentanyl can be created easily in a lab, it is often sold at the same price as drugs cut without fentanyl, or not identified as a cutting agent at all when purchased on the illicit drug market.
As opioid addicts search for higher highs at a cheaper price, fentanyl offers a fix. But for unwitting drug users thinking they’re just buying a plain bag of dope, consumption can be lethal.
It is now entering America's mailing facilities in its purest form. A mere sprinkling of those granules can cause a deadly overdose.
And in efforts to halt the drug from reaching the streets, federal agencies are rushing to build out strategies for its detection.
As late as June 2017, U.S. Customs and Border Protection hadn't trained drug-sniffing dogs to identify fentanyl at the nation's international mailing facilities, fearing that any direct contact would kill them.
But a new, public-facing pivot for tools and training related to fentanyl seizures coincides with increased media coverage of the epidemic, new statistics suggesting illegal fentanyl use and overdoses are becoming more prevalent, and reports of the large price overdose incidents are costing local and state governments.
Taking a cue from several police departments that obtained Naloxone, the narcotics overdose medication, for their K-9 units over the summer, CBP trained a dog at the JFK facility to detect fentanyl inside sealed boxes — with an injection always nearby.
In early September, Jenni, one of the JFK facility's resident drug-sniffing canines, showed reporters how she is now sniffing sealed boxes for illegal substances, including fentanyl.
Jenni's handler now carries two sets of Naloxone in case something goes wrong — one for him and one for the dog.
Training dogs to sniff out fentanyl isn't the only new tool being used to track lethal opioids coming into the U.S. There are pilot programs for slick, new screening devices and efforts to advance international policy aimed at stopping the flow of drugs coming in through the mail. It's all part of a larger push: a reinvigoration within federal agencies to prevent the trafficking of opioids.
Richard Baum, the acting director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, has been an official with the agency since the Clinton administration.
“This administration came in with a very strong focus on the drug issue, the opioid crisis. ... There's been a lot of support on border security and the health side. It's become a top-priority issue, and that hasn't always been the case,” Baum told IJR.
Federal agencies have also celebrated several wins in the war against fentanyl, including the largest bust of the drug in the country's history, the closure of one of the dark web's major marketplaces for opiates, and the first Drug Enforcement Administration bust of a Chinese fentanyl dealer in the U.S.
But the new emphasis on combating the opioid crisis has come out of necessity. Opioid and fentanyl-related overdose deaths are reaching record numbers. According to preliminary data gathered earlier this year, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under the age of 50.
Lasers, X-Ray Machines and CAT Scanners
Inside JFK's facility, where fentanyl most frequently arrives in its purest form, CBP officials are piloting new technology to detect the drug. For the past three months, they've been renting handheld lasers that can identify existing analogs of fentanyl without ever needing to open the bag containing suspected drugs.
“We would be dead in the water without this technology,” one CBP officer told IJR.
Agents in the facility said they're hoping to make the lasers a more permanent solution. They also want additional X-ray screening machines installed and are researching the effectiveness of CAT scan technology as a screening mechanism.
“The facility itself hasn't changed,” CBP's JFK Airport Port Director Frank Russo said. “What's changed is our focus on fentanyl.”
The fentanyl entering JFK often comes from China and Hong Kong, and it can come in anything from a large package to a small envelope. At the Southwest border, fentanyl is often mixed with heroin. But at JFK, fentanyl often arrives in its purest, most hazardous form.
And while lasers and dogs can help identify drugs being inspected at the facility, both Baum and Russo agree the most important priority for tracking these deadly drugs is accessing parcel data from postal services abroad.
'This Is A Border, Too'
Foreign postal services aren't required to provide manifest data in advance of arrival in the U.S. And yet, analytics showing trends from different regions around the world could help authorities track and stop the various drugs and illegal materials entering via mail. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has introduced a bill with bipartisan support that would require foreign postal services to provide data on packages entering the U.S.
CBP typically hand-sorts parcels for extra screening. A pre-emptive look at what parcels will arrive in the U.S. could save JFK's mailing facility time and money by targeting high-risk areas and consignees.
“This is a border, too,” Baum explained. “This stuff is coming in internationally. And tightening border security internationally through technology, resources, and personnel is something that's a priority.”
“There's a lot to be said about focus, energy, and enthusiasm, particularly on border security and border enforcement. [The U.S. Department of Homeland Security] and other law enforcement agencies, post-9/11, shifted a lot of their focus on terrorism, which we all understand,” he added. “But what I think we're seeing now is a bit of a rebalancing so terrorism is important, but counter-narcotics is also important.”
Politically, the Trump administration has a vested interest in fulfilling drug policy and public health demands of states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Florida — swing states heavily afflicted by the influx of opioids that come through JFK and other ports of entry across the country.
Still, the president's promise to declare a national emergency for the opioid crisis — a key recommendation from his own opioid commission, which focused on addiction treatment and prevention, not enforcement — has remained unfulfilled.
Trump told reporters the opioid crisis was a national emergency in August. But the White House legal counsel continues to examine whether a national emergency should be declared at all. There's no deadline for the decision on the opioid crisis, but since Trump's comments, several declarations of emergency have been made, and those mostly related to natural disasters.
“The commission and members of the administration have continued to meet and work on the details of that declaration,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters during Monday's White House press briefing. “It's a much more involved process, and that's something that they're working through on the legal side, on the administrative side, and making sure that it's done correctly.”
Now, the fate of federal funding for opioid addiction treatment and prevention remains unclear. Funding for opioid abuse programs remains available through the Obama-era 21st Century CURES Act, but that will run out before the end of the president's first term in office.
There are signs, though, that suggest the Trump administration will keep it afloat.
Drug Czar Nominee
The Office of National Drug Control Policy, which once faced the threat of a budget cut of 95 percent in the early days of the Trump administration, looks like it's regaining importance. After the administration's drug czar role remained vacant for eight months, the White House nominated Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) to become the office's next leader.
Marino, who reportedly withdrew his consideration from the position in April, was suddenly back this August. He had cited his mother's failing health as the reason for this withdrawal from the process, but he reconsidered, an ONDCP official told IJR, after his mother's health bounced back, and she gave him her blessing to take the job.
Marino, who is a former U.S. attorney representing a district hit hard by the opioid epidemic, may be a good fit, based on his resume. But at his confirmation hearing, his resignation as U.S. attorney for an investigation into his involvement with a mobster, allegations of “judge shopping” to help out a friend, and large sums of money from the pharmaceutical industry may come into question.
Editor's note: Previously, this story mistakenly misnamed Customs & Border Protection's JFK Airport port director as Anthony Russo.