U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) are warning that "the mails" are increasingly being used to ship illegal drugs. Murkowski told the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday that this scourge was "wiping out whole families" in rural areas of Alaska and "we need to get on it yesterday."
Holder called it "shocking to see the amount of drugs that get pumped into communities" through the U.S. Postal Service and "a major problem we have to deal with." The warning was part of his testimony regarding the Justice Department's Fiscal Year 2015 budget request.
How big of a problem is USPS drug smuggling, really? The number of arrests related to narcotics shipments did jump 33 percent in 2012 from the previous year, according to U.S. Postal Inspection Service figures. Whether this is due to an uptick in drug-o-grams or increased law enforcement efforts is hard to say.
But if we use the number of arrests as a proxy for the amount of drugs being shipped through the USPS, the practice has been pretty stable for the past two decades. An 1999 article from The Arizona Republic notes that "typically, the Postal Service…arrests 1,800 people nationwide for smuggling drugs and money through the mail each year." In 2001, there were only 1,662 such arrests.
Between 1994 and 1996, 6,170 people—an average of 2,056 per year—were arrested for attempting to deliver or receive drugs through the mail, according to The Christian Science Monitor. In 2012, there were around 1,760 such arrests.
According to a report in Louisiana newspaper The Advocate, most mailed drug cases involve very small amounts of drugs (and end up being prosecuted through local, not federal, laws). To catch these small-scale drug shiptments, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service already places "prohibited mail narcotics teams" around the country. Suspicious tape or odors may get package flagged, officials said—as might having a return address from "suspicious" location.
From The Advocate:
Wagner, the local mail sleuth, was profiling parcels at the mail processing facility on Bluebonnet Boulevard in May when he singled out an express package sent from San Leandro, Calif., that he deemed suspicious because it originated in "a known source city for narcotics."
Shipping something from San Leandro, California? Apparently that's all the probable cause needed!