Editor's note: This story is part of the Herald's continuing coverage of the opioid epidemic.
OSKALOOSA — It sounds like a scene from a Hollywood movie: Seedy apartment in a foreign country; a shadowy person on a laptop selling opioids on the dark web to somebody in America.
Juliette Kayyem, Homeland Security expert based in Washington, D.C. said the conversation goes something like this:
“How can I receive this safely through the mail?” The recipient asked the drug dealer.
“Don’t worry about it; it goes right through," the dealer said. "They don’t check anything.”
It's that easy, Kayyem said. A loophole in the U.S. mail system.
It’s a large reason why there is an opioid epidemic in the United States, Kayyem said. The opioid supply floods in freely.
Kayyem has an extensive background in terrorism and national security affairs. She and others are working tirelessly to stop the flood of dangerous opioids coming from foreign countries through a loophole in the United States Postal Service with the STOP (Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention) Act.
When people hear about Homeland Security, Kayyem said, they usually think of terrorism, but there’s more to it.
“Really what Homeland Security is about is securing America from all harm and securing the flow of people, goods, mail and everything else. We have to focus on security just as much as flow,” she said. “Honestly, if you look at the numbers — and while terrorism is a threat — our citizens are dying from the opioid epidemic."
It's overwhelming, Kayyem said.
“It’s overwhelming for our communities, our first responders, our hospitals," she said, "and so I really got into this from that lens. We have thought a lot about aviation, cargo and now we need to think a lot more about mail.”
Vulnerabilities in the postal system
Kayyem said that there are vulnerabilities in our mail that are being taken advantage of and causing great harm in our country.
“Our postal system is porous," she said. "In particular, we don’t require advanced postal screening for [packages] that come from other countries.”
Basically, Kayyem said, advanced screening data is just essentially what you would think a 21st-century postal service would have.
“We need to know who’s sending it and what’s in it. Where’s it going to," she said. "All the things that when we send stuff through the private postal system we actually have to do."
Kayyem said that the foreign drug dealers are taking advantage of our weak postal security from the evidence they have discovered on the dark web.
“And because of that really dangerous stuff is coming through the mail,” she said. “What we are promoting is educating people, the media and communities to support the STOP Act which is a bi-partisan act, supported by President Donald Trump and the Opioid Commission, which is, essentially, to close that loophole. To make it harder for this to happen.”
Closing the loophole won't solve everything, Kayyem said, but the country needs a multi-faceted approach to what is happening.
“But we also know that any epidemic has to address the supply chain side,” she said. “You can’t just look at it on the response side in terms of addiction or public health and public safety. You have to look at the flow of bad things coming into this country. So, we think this [STOP Act] has to be part of a comprehensive approach.”
There is no legal requirement for advanced screening data for things coming in from other countries, Kayyem said,
“The goal here is to make the requirement for use of the postal system or in China or Russia. If something did get into the country and we could determine what it was or if it harmed someone, we would have a better way to track it and understand where it came from. The goal is to stop the loophole.”
Despite being a bi-partisan bill, the STOP Act is currently not supported here in Iowa.
“There is a legislative fix for this problem but no one from Iowa is on board yet,” she said. “As a Homeland Security expert, I think about what’s harming America. I look at the number of people dying, and those numbers are exceeding cancer, the last three wars.”
Kayyem said that the screening process would be a requirement on all parcels coming into the U.S. and the information would go into an electronic database.
“It would give law enforcement and the intelligence community the capability to assess trends and figure out where bad things are coming from," she said. "The price of it would fall on the sending country, not on us. There would be some administrative costs but mostly sending countries would handle it.”
Kayyem said local post offices would not have to change their procedures.
“Packages only come into this country in seven or eight designated areas. It won’t impact the smaller post offices at all,” she said. “I would like people to know this is a serious vulnerability that is being taken advantage of. We have to address the addiction, the public safety issue of it but we also we have to address the supply chain how this stuff is getting here.”
Herald Staff Writer Shelly Ragen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.