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It's Easy to Get High in Cyberspace

Law enforcement has failed to keep pace with rogue drug websites.

June 01, 2005|James D. Zirin | James D. Zirin is a lawyer in New York.

The illegal drug trade, one of the last free markets in the world, has taken to the Internet, where it is possible to buy prescription drugs without a prescription or consultation with a physician. All you need is a predilection to get high, and the drugs are virtually as easy to come by as candy.

According to a recent study, conducted by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, there is a welcome decline in the use of Ecstasy by teens, with marijuana use holding steady. The alarming figures, however, concern the abuse of Vicodin, Oxycontin and other opiate-like painkillers that are offered online.

The Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found illicit sales of controlled prescription drugs were booming online. In one week last year, CASA investigators identified 495 "portal" websites offering dangerous and addictive opiates, central nervous system depressants (such as Valium) and stimulants on the federal list of controlled substances. These portal sites refer the potential consumer to separate "anchor" sites that do the selling. All you need do is type "buy" and the name of the desired drug into Google, click on the website with your credit card ready, and it's yours two days later in a plain, unmarked package. Of the selling sites located, 90% did not require a prescription or ask the buyer's age.

In the past, pushers met addicts in darkened hallways. Today, the pusher may be in Canada or elsewhere. It is as easy as buying a book on Amazon.com. Internet drug sites typically require only a shipping address and payment method to complete a sale. If you don't have a prescription, the seller will give you a free medical "consultation" online or, more typically, waive the requirement altogether. Some sites offer three 50 mg. codeine tablets free with the first purchase. Investigators found no sites offering heroin or cocaine, but some offered marijuana seeds, opium poppies and coca leaves. Controlled prescription drugs, when pulverized and snorted, can produce euphoric mind states similar to those associated with heroin and cocaine. Demand is high worldwide for controlled pharmaceuticals. They are the drug of choice for substance abusers who now find virtual access only a mouse click away.

The United Nations' drug watchdog, the Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board, recently estimated that "billions of [doses of] controlled substances ... are being sold by unlicensed Internet pharmacies." The U.S. remains the largest market in the world for illegal drugs, with 8.2% of its population using them.

Like terrorists, drug peddlers have conscripted computer technology to work their nefarious deeds. Technology readily permits drug websites to go up, move or be taken down in a trice, making it all the easier to elude detection.

Last fall, the INCB warned that online pharmacies "are used as a source by drug addicts and provide the means for large-scale dealing to a practically unlimited number of customers."

In the United States, the Internet transcends state laws regulating prescription drugs, and the states cannot solve the online-sales problem without federal assistance.

The danger convinced the Clinton administration in its closing days that there was a need for new laws to meet the problem. In late December 1999, President Clinton proposed an initiative to protect consumers from the illegal sale of pharmaceuticals on the Internet. The measure would provide new requirements for Internet pharmacies to comply with laws relating to controlled substances and prescriptions, impose new civil penalties for violations, give broader investigative authority to federal agencies, and create an awareness campaign to alert the public to the dangers of buying prescription drugs online. But six years later, the measure is still pending, and while Congress dithers, the sales go on.

Although many may go to the Internet for legitimate, low-price prescription drugs, law enforcement has not kept pace with technology and has failed to weed out the rogue websites. Internet drug sales are a serious loophole in our enforcement policy. Strong legislation, vigorous enforcement and parental vigilance are necessary to extend the rule of law to cyberspace.

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