The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Homeland Security has reported its findings from an audit to determine to what extent Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses small-scale chemical screening devices at ports of entry to identify fentanyl and other illicit narcotics.
On October 26, 2017, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a national Public Health Emergency. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 28,000 people in the United States overdosed and died from synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, in 2017.
And a new report from the Rand Corporation notes that deaths in the United States involving synthetic opioids increased from approximately 3,000 in 2013 to more than 30,000 in 2018. In addition, this type of drug is now involved in twice as many deaths as heroin.
The OIG review found that since 2016, CBP’s Office of Field Operations (OFO) has spent nearly $25.6 million on 279 small-scale chemical screening devices to identify fentanyl and other illicit narcotics but not at lower purity levels (10 percent or less). This is concerning because, at the southwest border, OFO predominantly seizes fentanyl at low purity levels. Two milligrams of this drug can be lethal, making it a significant contributor to opioid fatalities.
OFO officials told OIG they were concerned about the dangers of fentanyl, and as a stopgap measure, purchased the new screening devices without conducting comprehensive tests of effectiveness. This occurred because OFO purchased the screening devices without requiring comprehensive testing of their capability to identify low purity levels of illicit narcotics.
Another major concern highlighted in the report is that OFO does not have adequate policies for deploying, using, and updating the small-scale chemical screening devices used to identify fentanyl. OIG found OFO management did not provide oversight to ensure the office updated its guidance on non-intrusive inspection technology when it acquired the screening devices. According to OIG’s findings, “Currently, OFO cannot ensure that it is protecting the United States from criminals smuggling fentanyl with purity levels less than or equal to 10 percent, thereby increasing the risk of fentanyl or other illicit narcotics entering the country”.
To address these concerns, OIG wants to see comprehensive analysis on the ability of any chemical screening device to identify the presence of fentanyl and other narcotics at lower purity levels in field environments, perform reproducibility test runs, and obtain a third-party verification of the results.
The watchdog also recommends developing and implementing a strategy, based on the outcome of the comprehensive analysis, to ensure deployed chemical screening devices are able to identify narcotics at purity levels less than or equal to 10 percent, or provide ports of entry with an alternate method for identifying narcotics at lower purity levels; and test any new chemical screening devices to understand their abilities and limitations in identifying narcotics at various purity levels before CBP commits to their acquisition.
OIG says CBP also needs a formal strategy to deploy and use small-scale chemical screening devices and keep them updated. “The strategy should address shortand long-term goals including how the equipment will be deployed; a process for approving the equipment for use; how and when the equipment will be used; how and when officers should document and report on equipment usage; and how and when to update the equipment software and spectral database, including timetables for updates and monitoring.”
Finally, OIG recommends developing and implementing a plan for the long-term development of a centralized spectral database for the chemical screening devices. It says the plan should include how newly identified spectra will be collected, stored, and distributed to devices at the ports of entry, and identification of parties responsible for updates and maintenance of the spectral library.
CBP concurred with all four recommendations and states that it intends to complete the work required to meet these by the end of July 2020.