Business Booming for Illegal Online Pharmacies

By Pat Anson, Editor

One of the many unintended consequences of efforts to reduce opioid prescribing is that they may be fueling the growth of illegal online pharmacies.

According to one estimate, as many as 35,000 online pharmacies are in operation worldwide. Over 90 percent are not in compliance with federal and state laws, many do not require a prescription, and about half are selling counterfeit painkillers and other fake medications. About 20 illegal online pharmacies are launched every day.

“There is no sign that this is slowing down,” says Libby Baney, Executive Director of the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP), an industry supported non-profit.

“You have people (losing) their access to healthcare, not just pain care, but just general care. You have the opioid epidemic. You have the well-intended policy responses to that. All of this has the potential, unintended consequence of sending people to the Internet.

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“My biggest fear is that if you limit prescriptions to five days or seven days, or prevent access to medication altogether, and people search.”

Since 2015, counterfeit painkillers and other medications made with illicit fentanyl have killed Americans in at least 16 states, according to a recent report that found the highly dangerous pills have spread from coast to coast.

"A lot of these people are buying it on the street or the Internet," Dr. Karen Gunson, Oregon’s medical examiner, told The Oregonian. "They think they're buying oxycodone or Xanax pills but they don't know what they're getting.''

What pain medications can you buy online? Oxycodone, hydrocodone, Percocet, Vicodin, tramadol and other painkillers can easily be found online, along with other controlled substances that are becoming harder for patients to obtain legally.

“There are thousands of websites that have figured it out and people are using them,” says Baney. “Most of these sites are based offshore. They may be using some U.S. servers, U.S. bank accounts or U.S. domain registrars, but nearly all are offshore. And that creates law enforcement hurdles.”

Last month the Food and Drug Administration announced a crackdown on over 500 online pharmacies that were accused of selling illegal and potentially dangerous medications. Warning letters were sent on September 19, giving the website operators 10 days to stop selling unapproved or misbranded prescription drugs.

Twenty days later, most of them are still online selling the same medications.

In a chat today with “Peter” at one of the websites that received a warning letter, I was told that I could purchase 80mg tablets of oxycodone without a prescription. Another website offered to ship us medications “placed inside baby doll as gift to ensure customer privacy and safe delivery.”

Baney says many of the illegal online pharmacies act as marketing agents for foreign drug suppliers.

“You don’t even need to have your own drug supply,” she said. “All you have to do is join an affiliate network and basically become a third-party marketer for an existing drug network.

“They give you the website template. They have the bank account setup. All you need to do is put up the site and process orders, and you get a cut and they get a cut, and they ship the drugs. It’s a pretty slick deal.”

Baney says it’s relatively easy to tell the difference between a legitimate online pharmacy and an illegal one. The URL’s for websites that end with “.Pharmacy” (not .com or .net) are certified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy and are in compliance with laws and practice standards.

You can also visit buysaferx.pharmacy to verify whether a website is legitimate.

The ease and convenience of ordering medications online – as well as the demand and profitability -- haven't gone unnoticed. According to CNBC, Amazon in the next few weeks will decide whether to enter the $560 billion prescription drug market with an online pharmacy of its own.