Opioids overnight: Addiction by Express Mail

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Postal and Customs authorities must do a better job at screening international mail shipments for opioids arriving in the United States via "Express Mail" according to a new congressional investigation. (WLS)

A year-long Senate investigation has officially determined what the ABC7 I-Team has reported on numerous occasions: the internet has become the world's largest illicit drug store and Chicago O'Hare's mail facility is at the heart of the problem.

Testimony at Thursday's Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs investigations subcommittee hearing focused on illegal shipments of the powerful and addictive opioid fentanyl, which are pouring into the United States by mail from China. Senators, law enforcement officials and expert witnesses said that the U.S. Postal Service has failed to adequately use high-tech detection methods to turn off the flow of deadly drugs.

As I-Team reporting has found, opioids are easily accessible on hundreds of websites; drugs that are legally accessible in the U.S. only by prescription. After purchase, the pills or powder are mailed by "labs" in China to Americans, who consume them, or to middlemen, who dilute them for resale. Sellers of illicit fentanyl in China prefer to ship through the U.S. Postal Service because delivery is "basically guaranteed," according to the congressional report.

The USPS facility at O'Hare is the second-largest gateway for illegal opioid shipments based on package seizures, authorities said. Only the international mail facility at JFK Airport in New York City handles more. Nine of every 10 packages of fentanyl intercepted by investigators and drug-sniffing dogs originate in China and Hong Kong, according to federal agents.

Illinois state police officials have said that in 2017 a new web-based tracking app will be rolled out for law enforcement called the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program. ODMAP, as it is known, combines street-level data with digital mapping to help public health officials, police departments, and first responders track and respond to overdoses in real time.

"ODMAP is a tool that gives law enforcement and health officials the data they need to respond swiftly and effectively to spikes in overdoses," said Leo Schmitz, Illinois State Police director, at a briefing late last year.

Online sales from China tracked by the Senate investigators were linked to seven confirmed synthetic opioid-related deaths in the United States, they said. U.S. fatalities linked to opioids including fentanyl have been rising dramatically and totaled more than 42,000 in 2016, according to government data. There were 1,500 overdose deaths in metro Chicago during 2017 according to a report this week by the I-Team, the majority of them resulting from opioids and heroin or a combination of both.

Sixty-six percent of all overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2016 were caused by opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That rate has gone up even since 2014 when the CDC reported that 61 percent of overdose deaths were related to opioids.

The U.S. Postal Service said in a statement it was "working aggressively with law enforcement and key trading partners to stem the flow of illegal drugs entering the United States. "Staff of the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee said they focused on six "very responsive" providers in China, out of hundreds of pages of websites offering fentanyl for sale.

The result was the identification of 500 online transactions involving fentanyl, mainly in powder form, with a street value of about $766 million.

The investigation was overseen by Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, the subcommittee chairman, and Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the panel's senior Democrat. Their nearly year-long, bipartisan investigation found that drug traffickers "easily" ship fentanyl and other synthetic drugs from China to the U.S., using the international arm of the Postal Service to avoid detection and interdiction by customs authorities.

The U.S. government has indicted two Chinese nationals for allegedly manufacturing and shipping illegal cocktails of the drug fentanyl into the United States, which authorities said has contributed to a national crisis with an "extraordinary death toll."

Xiaobing Yan, 40, and Jian Zhang, 38, both of China, were indicted in separate cases in recent weeks, the Justice Department announced on Thursday.

That is the first time U.S. authorities have filed charges against major fentanyl traffickers based in China, where authorities believe the vast majority of illegal fentanyl is being made or otherwise sourced.

"[It's] an extraordinary epidemic and crisis that has been building for some time," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told ABC News.

Zhang allegedly ran a network of labs in China that manufactured fentanyl and sold the drug online. He and eight others -- five Canadian citizens, two residents of Florida, and a resident of New Jersey - have been indicted by a federal grand jury in North Dakota for conspiracy to distribute fentanyl and fentanyl analogues in the United States and other drug-related conspiracies. Zhang allegedly sent thousands of packaged to U.S. customers since 2013.

U.S. Justice Dept. officials say Chinese authorities have been assisting in their investigations, but U.S. investigators have faced challenges because the ingredients used to make fentanyl are not necessarily illegal in China.

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