A D.C. resident was sentenced to prison Tuesday for using fake names and local colluders to sneak heroin from Nigeria into the national capital region, while using the U.S. Postal Service as his unwitting courier.
Prosecutors say Steven Mason, 48, was part of a criminal ring that tapped sources of heroin and alprazolam — an anti-anxiety drug sold under the brand name Xanax — in African countries from 2014 to 2016 and then sold the drugs in Maryland and Northeast Washington, including the hip H Street corridor.
Mason and co-conspirator Andrea Miller, 49, who was sentenced in June, worked with a primary trafficker in Nigeria who would arrange to ship the drugs from places like Kenya, Tanzania and India, and list fake names as the recipients, according to the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.
The heroin was hidden in other items, such as clothing, and sent through the U.S. mail.
Conspirators would wait for the heroin-filled packages to arrive at specific addresses, or get civilians to accept the parcels in exchange for cash or drugs.
Opioids such as heroin are killing tens of thousands of Americans each year, and cases like this one underscore the ease with which some traffickers can leverage the Postal Service to get drugs from overseas.
Typically, the packages arrive from clandestine labs in China, though the D.C. ring found alternate sources in Africa.
Congress may be poised to authorize a crackdown. The House just passed legislation that requires the Postal Service to give advanced data to U.S. Customs and Border Protection on 70 percent of foreign packages by the end of this year and on every package by the end of 2020.
Starting in 2021, the U.S. Postal Service must reject packages that don’t contain the data, or else face civil penalties.
Customs agents say the data are a key tool in targeting suspicious packages that may contain fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is far more powerful than heroin and can kill in tiny amounts.
Private carriers like FedEx already submit electronic data on foreign parcels before they arrive at U.S. ports, yet only a portion of foreign posts provide it to the U.S. mail system.
Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican and main champion of the effort, says he hopes the Senate will take up the bill soon.
He spearheaded an investigation this year that found it’s far too easy to get opioids through the international mail system, though in the D.C. case, federal agents, postal inspectors and D.C. police were able to catch the perpetrators.
U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan sentenced Mason to five years in prison. Miller is serving 15 months. Both were found guilty by a jury in March.
Eleven other members of the ring have been convicted of trafficking.
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