Fighting the Flow of Fentanyl at JFK

Early in January, President Donald Trump signed a bill to fund high-tech devices for John F. Kennedy Airport and others to better detect the illegal drugs flowing through international mail.  For New York political leaders, and for the Customs and Border Protection Agents tasked with stopping the torrent of fentanyl coming into the city through the airport, the machines can’t get here soon enough.

A powerful opioid, fentanyl is often added to heroin and cocaine to increase potency, and thus drug dealer profits. It killed thousands of New Yorkers in 2016, according to the New York Health Department. Illegal fentanyl is often produced overseas and mailed to America. According to Customs statistics, JFK Airport takes in 60% of the United States’ total international mail, making JFK a hotbed for seizures of drugs, including fentanyl.

Needles commonly used for shooting up heroin and other opioids.

The Bill, known as the INTERDICT Act, will provide major airports around the country with hand- held screening devices that use laser technology to better detect dangerous and illicit drugs. At JFK’s International Mail Room, the drug is often smuggled in packages concealed as produce, baby powder, or even stored in stuffed animals. The new devices, a customs spokesperson said, would be placed on the sealed packages and use laser technology to determine if drugs are inside, based on catalogued data. The machines will “refine and further enhance the effectiveness of our drug detection and
interdiction capabilities,” a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said.

At JFK, fentanyl was seized 84 times in 2017—an extreme jump from the 7 times it was seized
in 2016. According to New York Senator Charles Schumer, who has long been an
advocate for the new equipment,  drug cartels and traffickers are taking advantage of Customs and Border Protection’s limited screening capabilities of international packages. Fentanyl, he said in a press release, “is extremely lucrative for dealers and cartels, who can sell $3,000 to 5,000 in fentanyl purchased from a Chinese drug laboratory for up to $1.5 million dollars on the street.”

In a letter to Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, Schumer said, “The crisis has hit my home state of New York especially hard, with deaths from drug overdoses reaching epidemic levels. As a major port of entry, JFK International Airport should be amongst the first locations to receive new high-tech drug scanners once this bill is signed into law.”

The INTERDICT Act allocates $9 million to fund major airports with these new devices, which
will cost approximately $20,000 each, Schumer’s office reports. Though it is unclear
when the devices will arrive, Schumer said JFK should be among the first to
get them.

According to the Customs spokesperson, the devices will not only increase drug detection, but it will also limit the amount of contact Customs and Border Protection Police Officers have with fentanyl during the detection process at international mailrooms. The main reason: Agents will no longer have to open the plastic packages containing the actual fentanyl.

Officials say the detection of fentanyl sometimes poses a risk to narcotics dogs, as well as the humans who work with them. Just last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration put out a nationwide warning to alert police about the dangers of fentanyl for officers and dogs. In 2016, three K-9’s in Broward County Florida were rushed to the veterinarian when they displayed overdose symptoms after executing a narcotics search warrant. According to police officers at the scene, grains of fentanyl went undetected, and may have been absorbed in the K-9’s paws as they walked around, according to Detective Andy Weiman, head of dog training for the Broward County Sheriff’s office.

That same year, two Atlantic County New Jersey detectives were hospitalized after inhaling fentanyl when a “puff” of it escaped from a bag containing drugs during a field test. “I felt like my body was shutting down,” Detective Eric Price told NBC News. “I thought I was dying.” Only a few grains of fentanyl can be fatal, police officials say.

Due to the drug’s potency, Customs and Border Protection also plan to upgrade protection gear for agents, as well as provide Narcan—used to reverse the effects of opioids—to major ports of entry.