Tom Ridge

Former Gov. Tom Ridge addresses crowd at the Flight 93 National Memorial on Sept. 11, 2011, near Shanksville.

Thanks to a 14-year-old shipping loophole, one of the nation’s deadliest drugs – Fentanyl – is often delivered from overseas to drug dealers’ doorsteps.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge has joined a bipartisan coalition aiming to change that.

Ridge, the nation’s first Homeland Security secretary, is rallying support for a plan that would require electronic security data to be included on all packages sent from foreign countries to the U.S. through the United States Postal Service.

For years, FedEx and the United Parcel Service have been using the technology but the U.S. Postal Service does not.

It’s also not required at many points of origin, including countries like China where illegal pharmaceuticals are produced and shipped in bulk.

“It’s pretty clear that there are businesses in China who are sending illegal opioids into the United States through the dark web,” Ridge said.

He described those companies as “merchants of evil,” adding that their drugs are leading to countless deaths nationwide.

Fentanyl, for one, has been blamed in a growing number of drug overdose deaths in the United States, and the same rings true in Cambria County, which saw both total fatal overdoses and Fentanyl-involved ones grow substantially in 2016.

Even as federal efforts to reduce the amount of prescription drugs that are ending up on local streets, “easy access” online is filling the gap, Ridge said.

Nearly 1 million packages every day arrive in the U.S. without proper screening measures in place. Even though federal inspectors are able to use their leads to intercept some packages, there’s no way for them to sort through each and every one, he said.

If a bipartisan group of lawmaker in both the house and senate get their way, details showing who is shipping the package, the point of origin, contents and destination would be required for anything shipped into the country.

While Ridge admits someone could try to falsify certain details, such as the contents, screening systems already in place would be able to flag instances where that data seems suspicious, allowing inspectors to take a package off the shipment line and take a closer look.

“That data might not seem like much but once you start building a database of people and companies, it becomes an effective tool to reduce the risk,” Ridge said.

Even seeing a trend of similar packages from a country like Russia or China bound for a small town or suspicious destination might be all that’s needed to stop a major drug shipment, backers said.

United States congressmen Pat Tiberi, an Ohio Republican, and Massachusetts Democrat Richard Neal, introduced legislation in the House last fall to make the Synthetics Tracking and Overdose Prevention Act (STOP) a federal law.

The toll these deadly drugs are taking in our communities is alarming and unprecedented.

“We must do all we can to stop these dangerous drugs from coming through our borders,” Neal said.

U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickly, was a listed co-sponsor.

They, alongside federal senators on both sides of the aisle, are planning to reintroduce the legislation in the coming weeks to push the plan again.

This time, Ridge said, they’ll have a vocal backer in the White House.

U.S. President Donald Trump has cited the need to close the shipping loophole, Ridge noted.

But getting that legislation to Trump’s desk itself won’t be enough to enact changes to the way packages are shipped globally, he said.

Once the STOP Act passes, supporters would push for a mandate through the international postal services convention.

“The postal service hasn’t historically embraced the notion of international electronic tracking,” Ridge said.

“We have to build our case. But particularly in light of the amount of opioid abuse we’re seeing here, I’m not sure how they can justify against (the change.)”

Americans for Securing All Packages is funded by a list of groups and businesses, including healthcare groups, national security experts and The Coalition of Services Industries, which counts postal service rivals UPS and FedEx as members.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.