Ohio’s bi-partisan effort to slow drug flow

Ohio’s senators are near success on two bipartisan bills aimed at stopping the flow of fentanyl into the U.S.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown has passed the Senate and is awaiting the president’s signature to release $15 million to add new screening and laboratory equipment to the Customs and Border Patrol efforts to detect and stop shipments of fentanyl as it enters the country, and Sen. Rob Portman was the co-sponsor of a bill to more closely regulate foreign packages arriving by mail in the U.S.

Much of the illegal fentanyl and other synthetic opioids come into the country through the mail, originating from labs in China, India and other countries. Portman’s bill is intended to use some of the same prenotification standards for mail that are used by international commercial shippers such as Fedex and UPS, a statement from Portman’s office said.

Brown noted that fentanyl is killing Ohioans in record numbers, making the state second on the list of accidental overdose deaths involving the drug.

Fentanyl is a highly concentrated form of synthetic opiate, tens times more potent than heroin. A lethal overdose for an average male is 30 milligrams of heroin; a dose of 3 milligrams of fentanyl would be fatal for a person of the same size. Because it is effective in smaller doses, illegal offshore labs often send it in small quantities through the mail. The fentanyl is mixed into street heroin, making it difficult for users to determine the strength of the drug they are injecting and consequently making an overdose much more likely.

In the second half of 2016, more than half the unintentional opioid overdose deaths involved fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Ohio, 4,050 people died from unintentional overdoses of all drugs in 2016, and fentanyl was involved in nearly 60 percent of those deaths, the Ohio Department of Health said.

Under Brown’s bill, more portable chemical screening devices will be available for ports of entry and mail and express consignment facilities. Additional fixed location screening equipment will be installed at CBP laboratories, and more resources, personnel and facilities will be brought on board to do testing and screening from field results.

Portman’s bill will require advance electronic data on international packages sent through the mail before they cross the border, information that will allow Customs and Border Patrol to “better target potential illegal packages,” Portman said.

Washington County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Mark Warden said Tuesday that any help in throttling the flow of fentanyl into the county will be welcome.

“Any time we can stop the flow across the border, that will affect the amount that comes into the county,” he said. Fentanyl is deadly not only to drug users but also to anyone who handles it — the drug can be absorbed in deadly amounts through the skin.

“I’ve got kids who work in the postal system, and that worries me sick,” he said. “Packages break loose, the powder gets out. We’ve changed our whole protocol about handling it.”

The first indication that the drug is present often comes from a trained dog giving an alert, he said.

“Any powder, we package it and seal it, send it straight off to BCI (Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation). Our protocol is not to touch it,” he said.

The heroin and fentanyl mix sold on the streets of Washington County usually comes from outside the area, he said. “Down here, we’re a user county. The source is Columbus, or sometimes another big city,” he said. “Normally, when it gets here it’s already mixed.”

Sizeable drug seizures have become nearly routine, he said.

“I remember, like in 2004, getting an ounce of crack, heroin, meth, that was huge,” he said. “Now it’s not unusual to get that on a search warrant.”

New resources against fentanyl

¯ Interdict Act: Provides $15 million for new screening and lab equipment for Customs and Border Patrol to detect fentanyl

¯ STOP Act: Provides new fentanyl detection resources for the U.S. Post Office