"Gray death" is a combination of several opioids blamed for thousands of fatal overdoses nationally, including heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil and a synthetic opioid called U-47700. (May 4, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

In front of the Harford County Sheriff's office is a massive billboard that keeps a running tally of drug overdoses. Drug overdose fatalities were up 50 percent last year over 2016, and they're up 12 percent this year compared with the same period in 2017. As of April 30th, there have been 136 overdoses in Harford in 2018 and 35 deaths.

Despite efforts on all fronts to stop fatal overdoses and catch drug distributors at the source, Harford, Baltimore and other Maryland communities are sinking further into the opioid crisis. While there are many actions needed to address this issue, a common sense first step is to stop fentanyl, carfentanil and other dangerous synthetic drugs from reaching Maryland streets through the global postal system.


Synthetic opioid overdoses have devastatingly become commonplace in Maryland. According to the Maryland Department of Health, from 2016 to 2017, carfentanil related deaths jumped from 0 to 57, and they continue to increase in 2018. Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that among synthetic opioids, the fatality rate doubled nationwide from 2015 — compared to a far less extreme growth in prescription opioid deaths of around 11 percent.

Harford records 200th fatal overdose since count started in 2015

Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler told the County Council Monday afternoon there have been 200 opioid-related overdose deaths in Harford since the count started in 2105.

It may seem surprising that a drug used to tranquilize elephants is now found in Baltimore and around the country. But this is no accident. A gaping hole in the global postal system allows bad actors to easily ship dangerous synthetic opioids found on the dark web to Maryland doorsteps with the click of a mouse.

Because of a postal loophole established in the Trade Act of 2002, over a million packages enter the U.S. every day without important information that law enforcement and Customs and Border Protection rely on to keep our communities safe. According to a new report from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), this is having disastrous effects. The report notes that while the United States Postal Service delivers nearly a half billion packages in one year from abroad, only 36 percent of those packages include advance electronic data (AED) that is essential for our law enforcement to identify and stop dangerous packages. And the data included with this 36 percent are too low quality to be useful. Packages shipped by private carriers, such as UPS and FedEx, are mandated to collect AED.

The discrepancy in data enforcement between private carriers and USPS is so glaring that the Senate investigation found that online drug traffickers prefer and recommend the use of the postal system for shipping synthetic opioids and other illegal drugs. Congressional investigators were also able to link online sellers in China to seven opioid-related deaths in the U.S. and 18 arrests for drug-related offenses.

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It's fitting that Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Elijah Cummings are taking the Ryan White Act as inspiration for their legislation to fight opioid addiction and overdoses.

This needs to stop before it takes more lives. Gov. Larry Hogan thankfully understands how damaging this postal pipeline is to the state and has taken action to curb the opioid crisis. Not only was Maryland the first state to declare a state of emergency because of the opioid crisis, but in a recent appearance on Capitol Hill, Governor Hogan stated, "we are really trying to crack down, but [the fentanyl is] coming, a lot of it's coming through the U.S. Postal Service. It seems like nobody uses the postal service anymore, but the drug dealers from China are because they aren't checking the packages the way the other delivery services are."

Fortunately, there is a bipartisan legislative solution at the national level that would help address Governor Hogan's concerns. The Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act is supported by 291 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, including Maryland U.S. Representatives Anthony Brown, John Delaney, Andy Harris and Dutch Ruppersberger. If passed, the legislation would require security data on all packages shipped from abroad and would help federal agencies target and stop packages containing illicit, deadly drugs. It's a simple and important solution in this devastating epidemic.

Harford County marked its 100th overdose of 2018 in March, before we even hit the 100th day of the year. We are now hoping the Maryland congressional delegation will help push the STOP Act forward to help curb the influx of synthetic drugs that are wreaking havoc on our communities. By working together, we can move toward the goal of turning off that Harford County billboard.

Tom Ridge (tridge@ridgeglobal.com) was the 43rd governor of Pennsylvania and first U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, and is a senior adviser to Americans for Securing All Packages, a coalition dedicated to closing the loophole in the global postal system.