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Why is the U.S. Postal Service Delivering Contraband?

There are enough dangerous drugs flowing in from overseas without the state helping them along.
USPS truck

Since America was founded, black markets—mainly fueled by government taxes and restrictions on products—have instigated violence and funded countless criminal organizations. Federal officials have known about these activities and expended plenty of resources trying to curb counterfeit products. But it doesn’t help when smuggling is enabled by…a federal agency. The United States Postal Service (USPS), which operates with a federal mandate to deliver mail into and across the U.S., has looked the other way as vendors deliver their contraband.

Fortunately, states are finally taking the USPS to task and going to court to try to hold it accountable. California and New York City recently filed suit against the agency in a Brooklyn federal court, alleging that the USPS has failed to enforce the 2009 Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking (PACT) Act, costing the Golden and Empire states a combined $40 million per year in lost tax revenue. Yet if the USPS continues to neglect the law, far more will be at stake than lower revenues (and higher taxes on other products). For the sake of taxpayers and consumers across the country, the USPS must clean up its act. 

To prevent nefarious actors such as al-Qaeda from profiting off of illegal cigarette sales, Congress reasonably laid the groundwork for a war on the black market nearly a decade ago. Included in the PACT Act was a requirement that the USPS disallow and destroy packages containing illegal cigarettes in order to prevent terrorists and syndicates from profiting off of crimes. But according to multiple jurisdictions, the USPS has failed to actively root out shipments that run afoul of the law. And when they do nab these products, they often return them to sender instead of destroying the contraband. 

This is probably sheer incompetence—hardly surprising given the history of the USPS. This is the same organization, after all, that continually delays truck procurements even as dozens of mail trucks catch on fire. Yet it’s also well known that the USPS doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to hiring practices. In August, the Inspector General (IG) took the agency to task for failing to provide proper documentation on employees “who were hired with a criminal hit on their pre-screening background check and did not conduct NACI background investigations for all newly hired employees. In 2017 and 2018, a quarter of USPS employees with a criminal record failed to receive necessary certifications and checks required with a rap sheet.”

Perhaps that’s why postal employees regularly get busted for crimes like trafficking drugs and making counterfeit money orders. 

Whatever the underlying reasons for these apparent PACT violations, it’s clear that these are not isolated problems. It’s been widely reported that deadly drugs coming to the U.S. from overseas are regularly shipped via USPS. The agency’s efforts to stem the flow of these products is woefully inadequate. In September 2018, the IG found that more than 90 percent of illicit drug websites identified USPS as their primary shipper. One prolific trafficker “claimed to have used the Postal Service to successfully distribute nearly 4,000 shipments, stating that they had a 100 percent delivery success rate.” 

In response to these alarming findings, the USPS and its Inspection Service have claimed that they are working to collect better information on packages in their system and collaborate with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But until the agency makes a greater effort to monitor its own employees (especially those with checkered pasts), progress may remain limited. In addition, a 2019 report by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) found that the USPS wastes more than $3 billion annually on bizarre pricing policies and inefficient operations. If leveraged properly, these resources could be used for more consistent monitoring of suspicious packages coming into the country.

That’s not to say that states such as California and New York are free of blame. Their high cigarette taxes encouraged individuals to turn to black markets in the first place, as the failed War on Drugs at all levels of government pushes consumers into the shadows. The problem of smuggling is an issue that USPS leadership, along with city, state, and federal governments, must work closely together on. Until then, black markets will continue to fund mayhem and suffering across the country and around the world. 

Ross Marchand is the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.



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