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Prescription drugs easily acquired from rogue Web sites

Chris Neilsen, left, counsels James Booker, a resident of. Goodwill Industries’ rehabilitation center for drug abusers. Booker says he bought drugs online and was surprised how easy it was. “I filled in some boxes, asked for Xanax, Valium and Percocet,’’ he said.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Chris Neilsen, left, counsels James Booker, a resident of. Goodwill Industries’ rehabilitation center for drug abusers. Booker says he bought drugs online and was surprised how easy it was. “I filled in some boxes, asked for Xanax, Valium and Percocet,’’ he said.

People can't buy heroin or cocaine online, but a few clicks of the mouse get them darned close.

For every CVS, Walgreens or Costco filling legitimate prescriptions over the Internet, dozens of shadowy Web sites sell painkillers and other powerful drugs to addicts, pushers and kids looking to get high.

They run sites out of Mexico, computer servers out of Russia and distributors out of India.

They boost their search engine rankings by hijacking college Web addresses.

They mask their origins by shuffling domain names like three-card monte.

In 2007, researchers at Columbia University conducted Internet searches of various addictive medications. They found 365 Web sites advertising or selling controlled substances.

Only 15 percent of them required prescriptions.

This month, the Florida Legislature created a statewide database to track every prescription written within the state. The aim: slow down "doctor shopping'' and put a dent in Florida's notorious "pill mills.''

If the database works, people who abuse prescription drugs "won't have many places to turn to except the Internet,'' says Chris Neilsen, drug rehabilitation counselor for Goodwill Industries in St. Petersburg.

But the database cannot track rogue pharmacies that operate in the unregulated wilds of cyberspace.

Neilsen says: "It's the new frontier.''

• • •

OxyContin is designed as a time-release painkiller. Addicts can crush it and get a euphoric rush. When abused, OxyContin and other narcotic painkillers resemble heroin in a bottle.

But Google, Yahoo and other search engines list Web sites that will FedEx them along, no questions asked.

Ditto for Xanax, Valium and other addictive substances.

Some Web sites invite people to list their age and "symptoms'' on a questionnaire, so an Internet "doctor'' can write an instant prescription. But federal law explicitly bans the distribution and possession of controlled substances without face-to-face examinations.

"It's a big problem for law enforcement,'' says Rusty Payne, of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "Something (is) happening between the time these substances are manufactured and the time they make it into the U.S. and into homes. Somewhere along the line, they are being diverted into the illicit market.''

Web site operators can hide behind anonymous domain names and not actually touch any drugs. When pharmacies and distributors are located overseas, as they increasingly are, U.S. authorities lack direct jurisdiction to shut them down.

"It's very challenging to go after thousands and thousands of Web sites,'' Payne says. "They are very elusive when you have a server and a computer that you can move around.''

Still, the DEA has managed to bust some rogue online pharmacies located in the United States and a few foreign operations in cooperation with other countries.

Sales records from these arrests during 2006 reveal how extensively rogue pharmacies fuel abuse. About 95 percent of sales were for addictive controlled substances, compared with 11 percent of sales for the average U.S. pharmacy.

The busted pharmacies sold an average of 2.9 million doses of the narcotic hydrocodone. In that same year, the typical U.S. pharmacy sold 88,000 doses.

"Nobody knows if 1 percent of illegal drugs or 80 percent of illegal drugs come from Internet pharmacies,'' says John Horton, who evaluates Web sites on www.legitscript.com.

People usually acquire illegal drugs through friends or family, Horton says, but those drugs may still originate from the Internet.

"If I want to sell Xanax, or Vicodin or Tramadol, I can get 120 or 180 pills, keep some for me and sell the rest on a street corner.''

Buyers ordering online could find themselves on the short end of a bait and switch — being lured by the promise of one drug only to be offered a substitute.

Or they could receive a counterfeit.

"Just because Joe Blow pharmacy says they are sending you meds X, Y and Z, they could be sending you poison A, B and C," says the DEA's Payne. "They could be sending you anything."

But when pharmacies do deliver the real thing or a close approximation, huge markups are possible.

Law enforcement officers and former users estimate that one 20mg OxyContin tablet costs about $10 to $12 from a street dealer.

Last month, one "no prescription'' pharmacy claiming to operate in Mexico offered 1,000 doses for $595.95, including shipping.

That comes to 60 cents a pill.

• • •

With his trim hairline, white dress shirt and creased slacks, James Booker, 27, looks more like the entrepreneurial real estate flipper he once was than a down-in-the-mouth junkie.

Nevertheless, his decadelong tango with cocaine, booze, pot and pills recently brought him to a court-ordered residential rehab stint at Goodwill Industries.

Recreational use turned into hopeless addiction, Booker says, and prescription drugs were the worst. To stave off withdrawal, he mixed painkillers, tranquilizers and antianxiety medicine, often downing 25 to 30 pills a day.

He financed his habit with marijuana farming and real estate investing. At first, he bought drugs off others or took phony symptoms to local pill mills. About 2 1/2 years ago, he decided to give Google a go.

"I was surprised'' at how easy it was, he says. "I filled in some boxes, asked for Xanax, Valium and Percocet.''

Two days later, the bottles arrived at his door.

"Online, you don't have to deal with drug dealers. It comes in a bottle with your name and address right on it,'' Booker says. "It was in the privacy of my home. I could fill out my own symptoms,'' which no one ever questioned.

Soon his e-mail filled up with spam from online pharmacies, urging him to buy more.

Users often delude themselves that Internet sales are somehow healthier than street drugs, says Neilsen, the Goodwill counselor.

In fact, sponsored ads on Google and Yahoo lead to pharmacies that sell without prescriptions.

"I'm taking prescription medication so it must be safe, certainly not as dangerous as the drug I get from the guy on the street corner. There's no risk of purity. How can it possibly be bad with the Internet being part of it?,'' Neilsen says.

"It takes denial and rationalization to a whole new level.''

To project reassuring images, online pharmacies gussy up home pages with seals of approval and images of white-coated doctors.

Many claim to be based in Canada, where seniors and others have sought discount drugs for years. But they could be operating out of Eastern Europe, Latin America or Asia.

Some pharmacies hack into college or university computer servers and hijack coveted "edu" tags. Google and Yahoo list Web sites with "edu" tags from academic institutions higher in search results.

For example, a Google search for Xanax recently led to a Web address that started "http://internal.edschool.virginia.edu/..." and was located on the University of Virginia's server.

On Yahoo, rogue pharmacies acquired "edu'' tags by piggybacking onto servers at the University of New Orleans, Milliken University in Illinois and Colby Community College in Kansas.

"Hackers are adept at finding vulnerabilities in code and exploiting them,'' says University of Virginia spokeswoman Marian Anderfuren, "and edu sites make an attractive target.''

Virginia removes the bogus addresses from its server as soon as someone calls attention to it, she says.

"No one at the University of Virginia is selling Xanax or Ambien or Viagra.''

The bogus virginia.edu address linked to a Web site that sported the American flag at the top of its home page and an FDA logo, even though it appears to be based in Europe and would not respond to e-mailed questions from the Times.

Buying drugs online without a prescription is "entirely legal,'' the Web site proclaims. "Now, using the power of the Internet, ordering from home is easier than ever.''

Fast Facts

Warning signs of an illicit pharmacy

• The site does not participate in any insurance plan and requires all payments to be made with a credit card.

• The site advertises no prescription required to obtain pharmaceutical-controlled substances.

• No physical exam by a doctor is required.

• The site sells a limited number of drugs .

• Inflated prices for drugs.

• The site advises you about the law and why it is permissible for you to obtain controlled substances from foreign countries via the Internet.

• The site does not ask the name, address or phone number of your current physician.

• The site advises you to have the drugs sent to a post office box or other location to avoid detection by U.S. authorities.

Source: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

For more information

www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/consumer_alert.htm is the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's warning about online pharmacies.

www.legitscript.com has a searchable database with good information about rogue pharmacies around the world.

www.pharmacychecker.com lists select U.S., Canadian and other foreign pharmacies that require valid prescriptions.

Prescription drugs easily acquired from rogue Web sites 05/22/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 26, 2009 1:42pm]

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