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Drugs by mail: Americans ordering fentanyl online from China, study says

Senate investigators did a “Google” search to see if they could buy drugs online from overseas. What they found was that it was both stunningly easy and that the U.S. has embarrassingly few tools to keep those drugs out.

In a report released late Wednesday, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Sen. Rob Portman, R–Ohio, found that Chinese websites selling fentanyl and carfentanil are incredibly responsive, supremely confident in their ability to get drugs into the United States and likely responsible for some of the tens of thousands of U.S. deaths from drug overdoses that occurred last year.

Among them, according to the report, was a 49–year–old man from a small town near Cleveland who paid $2,500 over the course of 10 months to an online overseas seller between May 2016 and February 2017, receiving 18 packages in return. One package sent from China spent just an hour in customs before being released for delivery. The man died in early 2017. His autopsy report said his death was caused by “acute fentanyl intoxication.”

RELATED: Fentanyl lead to 90% of overdose deaths in area counties

Senate staff conducted their investigation by reaching out to a handful of websites they found through a Google search. They quickly identified six websites selling opioids, all in China, which the Drug Enforcement Agency reports is the top source of opioids from overseas.

Investigators found it stunningly easy to engage with drug dealers online, with companies replying to requests for information in some cases in just a few minutes. Overseas sellers preferred payment in bitcoin but in some cases were willing to accept Western Union, PayPal and even credit cards for their products. In some cases, they offered a “hot sale” on an opioid that China had recently outlawed.

None seemed concerned about getting caught, the report found.

“All of the international online sellers who corresponded with the Subcommittee expressed confidence that the drug products they advertised would get delivered to the United States and not be seized by any customs authorities,” the report reads.

RELATED: Officer’s near fatal OD from fentanyl exposure prompts warning

In all cases, the subcommittee stopped short of buying drugs — contact with fentanyl and carfentanil is extremely dangerous, with just a few flakes posing a risk of death.

Still, investigators used data provided by the companies they were in contact with to subpoena financial records, identifying buyers including those that they believe were repackaging the drugs and re-selling them in the United States.

They found more than 300 individuals in 43 states completed 500 financial transactions totaling nearly $230,000 with four of the six online sellers. People in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Florida had the most financial transactions linked to the six sellers in question — conducting more than 200 transactions totally some $100,000.

Investigators intend to hand that information to law enforcement after a hearing scheduled for Thursday on the report’s findings.

Part of the problem, the committee found, was with the U.S. Postal Service In the aftermath of 9/11, companies such as DHL and FedEx began requiring advanced electronic data from packages overseas to allow them to better track packages and present them to the Customs and Border Patrol Agency for further investigation. The U.S. Postal Service did not, receiving such data on only 36 percent of the international packages they handle. In the meantime, e–commerce exploded: The U.S. Postal Service handled 149 million packages from overseas in 2013; by 2017, that number rose to 498 million.

Receiving the advanced electronic data was originally considered a national security issue; use of such data increased after foreign officials intercepted two packages of printer toner cartridges rigged with explosives, part of a thwarted terrorist attack in 2010, the report found. Still, there is no international requirement to provide such data, though the United States posts it on all of their international packages.

But there’s evidence that providing such data can help stop drugs from flooding into U.S. borders: earlier this year, Customs seized 83 DHL shipments containing 36 pounds of fentanyl at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. The shipments were addressed to individuals in multiple locations throughout 17 U.S. States and Canada.

The U.S. Postal Service in 2014 launched a pilot program aimed at better reviewing packages that came in with such data from overseas, with Customs asking the Postal Service to hold some packages for further inspection. Initially, Customs asked only that 10 packages a day coming in through John F.

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