Customs and Border Patrol officials are playing fast and loose with storage of the deadly synthetic opioid known as fentanyl, risking the health and lives of employees as the government grapples with a burgeoning load of smuggling cases, according to a new audit.
"Illicit fentanyl may be present in powder, tablet, or liquid forms, and is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin," says the document.
"Overdose from opioids such as fentanyl can cause death by slowing, and eventually stopping, a person’s breathing. It only takes two milligrams of fentanyl to kill most individuals."
"During our ongoing audit of Customs and Border Protection’s storage of seized drugs at permanent drug vaults we visited, we determined that CBP does not adequately protect its staff from the dangers of powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl," per the July 16 report by Jennifer Costello, acting Inspector General of Homeland Security.
"Specifically, CBP has not always made medications designed to treat narcotic overdose available in case of accidental exposure."
"In addition, CBP does not require mandatory training for its staff to provide an understanding of the hazards of fentanyl and methods to combat accidental exposure. As a result, CBP staff are at increased risk of injury or death in case of exposure."
Though the audit does not explicitly mention San Diego, the crossing between the U.S. and Mexico here is by far the country's busiest seizure point illicit fentanyl, with 85 percent of the substance entering through the gateway.
In a recent plea deal for trafficking the deadly drug, April Spring Kelly, a U.S. citizen living in Tijuana, admitted smuggling more than 450,000 fentanyl pills from Mexico into the United States during a nine-month period between February and October of last year. Kelly's plea was entered July 15, per a Justice Department news release.
“San Diego is the gateway for fentanyl to the rest of the country, and we are working aggressively to close that gate, one smuggler and one distributor at a time,” said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer in an accompanying statement.
“Today’s guilty plea is an example of the significant results that can be achieved when law enforcement agencies form a great partnership and work diligently to bring a case to prosecution,” Juan Munoz, acting special agent in charge for Homeland Security investigations in San Diego, added.
But the Inspector General's investigation found problems with holding the deadly evidence safely while the drug cases make way through the prosecutorial pipeline. "As of April 2019, [Customs and Border Patrol] had stored about 3,500 pounds of fentanyl — up from 70 pounds in 2015," according to report.
The agency's Office of Field Operations keeps fentanyl and other synthetic opioids "in its permanent vaults for up to 60 days, or until an assistant U.S. Attorney prosecutes the violator. In cases of prosecution, fentanyl may remain in OFO vaults for years."
Despite the government's burgeoning store of deadly drugs, the audit says, "precautions to protect its staff from powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl were not in place at vaults we visited."
At the top of the omission list was the failure to provide employees with stores of naloxone, an “opioid antagonist” used to treat overdoses. "Two of the vaults did not have naloxone, and an officer at one of the vaults had never heard of it."
"The other five vaults contained naloxone, but two of the five had it locked in boxes with codes," according to the document. "Staff had taped a piece of paper bearing the code to this vault on the wall next to the lock-box."
"However, when asked to open the lock-box at the other vault, staff could not open it because they could not remember the code. If this had been an actual event of fentanyl exposure, the staff could have died because they did not have timely access to the naloxone to counteract the fentanyl."
"With the recent rise in fentanyl seizures, CBP staff now routinely handle fentanyl more than ever," adds the report. "However, without easy access to Naloxone in case of exposure, CBP is unnecessarily jeopardizing the lives, health, and safety of its staff."
In addition, " lack of training on managing the lethal substance further increases the risk of injury or death to its employees from fentanyl exposure."
In response to the audit, Customs and Border Patrol administrators agreed to install naloxone nasal spray kits and lockboxes at all of the out-of-compliance vaults and begin informing staff about "proper use of the Naloxone spray, an understanding of the hazards of fentanyl, and methods to combat accidental exposure." The deadline for completion is September 30.