WASHINGTON — Illicit Internet pharmacies are helping abusers obtain controlled drugs such as the anti-anxiety medication Xanax, the painkiller Vicodin and anabolic steroids, the Drug Enforcement Administration told a House subcommittee on Tuesday.
The DEA wants Congress to require that drugs be sold over the Internet only on the basis of "valid prescriptions" that are written after face-to-face medical evaluations or, under special circumstances, through telemedicine.
Patrick Egan, a Philadelphia lawyer who specializes in Internet pharmacy regulations, countered that the DEA's proposed requirements would impose a hardship on rural and poor patients who use Internet pharmacies to reduce prescription drug costs. Telemedicine might solve part of the problem, he said, but not for patients who can't afford a consultation.
Other witnesses before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security said that federal regulation of Internet drug sites is needed. State regulations vary widely, said William Winsley, the executive director of the Ohio State Board of Pharmacy, and illicit Internet drug site operators seek out the least regulated ones.
Their operations are difficult to track because federal agencies don't regulate online pharmaceutical Web sites, and companies that provide Internet domain names and host Web sites can't distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate ones.
For concerned consumers, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy maintains a registry of online pharmacies that operate legitimately and that don't.
Companies such as GoDaddy.com that provide domain names and hosting services check spam e-mails to identify and drop suspect pharmacies, and their findings suggest the scope of the problem. In 2007, GoDaddy suspended 1,300 domain names of illegitimate online pharmacies, said general counsel Christine Jones. Thus far this year, it's suspended 6,000.
The number of individual offenders is far smaller, Jones said, because they typically sell under many domain names.
According to Joseph Rannazzisi, the deputy assistant administrator of the DEA's Office of Diversion Control, many illicit drug site operators have no medical or pharmaceutical training. They court doctors in debt to approve prescriptions based on online questionnaires submitted by would-be buyers.
Offenders also target independent pharmacies, he said, telling them that all they need to do is fill prescriptions already approved by a doctor.
To lure customers, the same online pharmacies advertise that they sell legal drugs without a need for a valid prescription, Rannazzisi said.
In 2007, the DEA conducted 132 investigations of Internet drug sales and seized $39.4 million in cash, bank accounts and computers, he said. That's triple its 2006 seizures.
The key clue often is the proportion of controlled substances that an Internet pharmacy sells. Typically, a pharmacy sells about 180 prescriptions per day, of which 11 percent are drugs such as anti-anxiety medications and painkillers.
An illegitimate online pharmacy, on the other hand, usually fills 450 prescriptions a day, of which 95 percent are controlled substances, Rannazzisi said.
ON THE WEB
For the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy's registry of legitimate and illegitimate online pharmacies, go to: www.nabp.net and click on "Internet Pharmacies" in the second News Headline.