Francine Haight will never forget the day she found her son Ryan, a high school senior, lifeless, in his bed.
"I tried to resuscitate him," Haight, said crying. But it was too late. Doctors found that Ryan Haight, an honor student who was barely 18, had died of an overdose of powerful prescription painkillers, a verdict that shocked his mother.
"I was just, 'Oh my God — hydrocodone, morphine, morphine. How did he get morphine?" she recalled.
It turned out that some of the drugs that killed the La Mesa, Calif., teen on Feb. 12, 2001 came from nationpharmacy.com, a Norman, Okla.-based Internet drug store owned by pharmacist Clayton Fuchs, who also ran other similar Web sites.
Haight's parents intentionally made sure the computer wasn't in their son's bedroom, so that they could monitor his online activities. But he had been sneaking onto the computer in the den late at night and ordering drugs, then experimenting with various combinations to get high.
Fuchs sent Haight the drugs even though he knew the teenager had never been examined by the doctor who wrote the prescription.
"I felt that the prescriptions were valid, so I filled them," said Fuchs.
20 Years to Life
In October, a federal jury convicted Fuchs, 33, on six felony offenses including conspiracy to dispense a controlled substance, operating a continuing criminal enterprise and money laundering. Prosecuted under the Drug Kingpin Statute, he faces 20 years to life in prison when he is sentenced Feb. 11.
Prosecutors say that between January 2000 and March 2001, Fuchs grossed $5.6 million by selling controlled drugs via the Internet. He's not alone. On Dec. 4, federal prosecutors in Alexandria, Va., unsealed an indictment, charging 10 people and three companies with illegally selling controlled substances and other prescription drugs over the Internet to consumers through various Web sites. Meanwhile, hundreds of other drug stores continue to operate on the Internet, in some cases filling prescriptions even though doctors who prescribe them never see the patient.
Selling painkillers and other abused and addictive prescription drugs online, with patients never meeting a doctor face to face, is illegal. But some Internet pharmacies operate in a legal gray area, filling patient requests for a limited range of drugs for dieting, baldness or sexual dysfunction.
Viagra For Sale
On one television commercial, a man says, "I get my Viagra with no waiting, no embarrassment and no prior prescription."
"I receive a free online consultation with a licensed U.S. doctor," another commercial says.
The "consultation" often amounts to clicking through an online questionnaire, read by a doctor who then decides whether to prescribe a drug the patient has already chosen.
Dr. Miles Jones works for one such Web site. "The total number of patients in my database is now slightly more than 32,000," Jones said. He is one doctor with 32,000 patients, who has done zero exams.
"Nothing could be easier, safer or more private," one man said in a commercial.
Dr. James Thompson, head of the Federation of State Medical Boards, which licenses and regulates doctors, questions that statement.
"Easy, private? Yes. Safe? No." Thompson said. "It's bad medicine, it's unethical practice of medicine."
For one thing, without a face-to-face exam, doctors may miss an underlying condition. Investigators say many sites are interested only in a patient's credit card.
Thompson said he has heard of some doctors who have earned more than $1 million a year writing Internet prescriptions. Jones says he's not getting rich, and hasn't harmed a single patient. He also says he gets more information than most doctors in the course of filling prescriptions.
But medical boards across the country aren't buying it: Because Jones prescribes lifestyle drugs like Viagra over the Internet, more than a dozen states have revoked or suspended his medical license, which means he is no longer allowed to sell prescriptions drugs to residents of those states. Jones says he'll appeal those cases to the end.
As for sites selling more dangerous drugs, one mother worries many parents have no idea of the danger.
"No one is aware how easy it is to buy drugs on the Internet with just a click here and a click there," Francine Haight said. "And I think parents really need to know."
Checking Out Online Pharmacies:
The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy has a program to verify online pharmacies. It is called Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites. Consumers should look for their seal of approval on Web sites selling drugs. http://www.nabp.net/vipps/intro.asp
For more on Ryan Haight, go to http://www.ryanscause.org/index.htm