Prescription for Trouble: the Problem With Online Pharmacies

"The Internet has become a pharmaceutical candy store," charges study author.

May 16, 2007 — -- A click of a mouse and there they are: a plethora of Web sites offering powerful prescription drugs for sale -- painkillers OxyContin and Vicodin, sedatives Valium and Xanax, stimulants Ritalin and Adderall.

And it's an all too familiar scenario for Francine Haight, who lost her 18-year-old son to a drug overdose in 2001.

"At a time we worried about our children being exposed to pornography and predators, marijuana and alcohol, we did not know that drug dealers were in our own family room," Haight told a Senate panel.

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Ryan Haight overdosed on the painkillers Vicodin, Valium and morphine -- drugs he was able to purchase online by claiming he was a 21-year-old who had back pain from a car accident. The site's doctor and pharmacist -- who never personally consulted with Ryan -- were happy to fill the order.

"I am a parent that belongs to a club I never want to join," Haight testified. "I am an ordinary person who could be your neighbor, your co-worker or a member of your house of worship, but drugs took my son from me and some days the grief is still unbearable."

'A Pharmaceutical Candy Store'

The Senate Judiciary Committee took up the issue in a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

Senators noted that the problem is big -- and getting bigger. "If drug dealers came into our neighborhoods selling these kinds of drugs, Americans would be up in arms," said committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Much to the dismay of Haight and legislators alike, the problem of unregulated online pharmacies appears to be growing.

"The Internet has become a pharmaceutical candy store… its shelves stacked with any array of addictive prescription drugs offering a high to any kid with a credit card at the click of a mouse," said Joseph Califano Jr., president of Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

A study from the center published this month found 581 Web sites advertising or selling controlled prescription drugs -- up from 342 found in 2006.

Of the sites, 174 actually sell the drugs and a whopping 84 percent don't require a prescription in order to complete the purchase.

Of sites that do require a prescription, "57 percent only require that the prescription be faxed allowing significant opportunity for multiple use and other types of fraud," said Califano."All a child needs is a credit card number and access to a computer and you've got drugs."

Ease of Ordering

The availability of drugs online and the ease of ordering and receiving the medicines takes away the risks that come with visiting a drug dealer on the street.

"Their perception was they thought these drugs were safe to take. They'd rather take those drugs than cocaine or heroin," said the Drug Enforcement Administration's Joseph Rannazzisi.

Harvard Law professor and former Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann commented on how easily the transactions take place and the drugs make their way into homes.

"They won't even bother using a phony prescription," Heymann said. "It will be sent in a brown bag that looks like two trillion others coming into the customs offices in New York."

Checks and Balances

Washington, D.C. pharmacist David Toth detailed the steps he has to take to fill a prescription in his brick-and-mortar pharmacy, telling ABC News he can't accept prescriptions that are phoned or faxed in, but needs to see the original form from a customer's physician.

Toth also raises a concern about the quality of the medications the online pharmacies dispense.

"Are they dispensing American medication? Foreign medication? Are they being inspected?" he asked. "We are inspected. We are watched very carefully…I don't know what type of checks and balances they have in the Internet pharmacies."

Sens. Dianne Feinsten, D-Calif., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., have proposed legislation in memory of Ryan Haight that would limit online sales of controlled substances.

Among other goals, the Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2007 aims to change laws to require a valid prescription for online transactions, with the validity of the prescription hinging upon the requirement that a doctor personally examine the patient.

The bill would also call for stiffer penalties for illegal distribution of the controlled substances and clarify to the pharmacies how regulations apply to them.

The bill is currently being reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.