CASA's study was conducted by entering various keywords and phrases into popular search engines, where unlicensed pharmacies are allowed to advertise their services, said Califano, who thinks it should be illegal for the search engines to have these pharmacies on their sites unless they've been certified.
Eight states passed laws in 2006 and 2007 to regulate the online selling of prescription drugs. The Senate passed a bill in April that prohibits the online distribution, dispensing and delivery of controlled substances without a prescription from a practitioner who has evaluated a patient in-person and which requires online pharmacies to be federally certified. It is now before the House.
"This report further emphasizes the need to take immediate action to stop rogue pharmacies on the Internet," said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) who, along with Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), introduced the "Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act."
The bill is named after Ryan Haight, a 25-year-old San Diego man who died of a drug overdose in 2001. Feinstein said Haight purchased hydrocodone, a cough suppressant with effects similar to morphine, on the Internet after completing an online questionnaire. According to Feinstein, Haight said he had chronic back pain but was not examined by, nor did he meet, the doctor who eventually wrote the prescription.
Feinstein said she knows of at least 17 other people who have died due to overdoses from drugs purchased online through these types of pharmacies.
CASA has been tracking the online availability of controlled prescription drugs for five years. While this year's report, which calls the Internet a "pharmaceutical candy store," found a decline in the number of Web sites advertising or selling these drugs – down to 365 from 581 in 2007 – it found, for the first time, that some Web sites are now selling prescriptions that consumers can print off at home and take to a local pharmacy.
"And the prescriptions actually get filled," said Califano. "What's the real killer here is that any kid can get this stuff."
On its website, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that some drugs sold online are fake, expired or handled incorrectly. The agency recommends that consumers make sure that online pharmacies are licensed through the National Association of Boards of Pharmacies and that any potential Web site requires a prescription and has a pharmacist available for questions.
Megan Chuchmach is a 2008 Carnegie Fellow at ABC News in New York. She recently graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.