The Drug Enforcement Administration has shut down a major Internet drug ring run from Philadelphia by two foreign university students who allegedly sold millions of doses of controlled narcotics, steroids and amphetamines online without prescriptions, officials said yesterday.
Officials said 20 people have been arrested so far this week in the United States and abroad in what they called the first Internet drug bust involving an international supplier. More than 200 Web sites got their drugs through the ring, the officials said.
A Drug Enforcement Administration official makes an arrest in New York. The DEA operation resulted in at least 20 arrests in the United States and abroad.
(Drug Enforcement Administration)
The drugs -- made mostly in India or Hungary and usually delivered to customers without information about what they were and how they should be taken -- included the popular prescription narcotics Vicodin and OxyContin and the animal tranquilizer Ketamine, a drug popular during rock music "raves."
While officials said they were encouraged by the arrests and the additional information they are expected to produce, they added that the problem of "rogue" Internet pharmacies is large and growing. The operation that was closed down supplied Web sites based in the United States, Costa Rica, Canada and Australia and shipped out as many as 1,000 packages a day, they said.
"Strangers are peddling drugs in your homes, and you don't even know about it," said DEA Administrator Karen P. Tandy, who warned that young people were especially vulnerable to the lure of online drugs. "The Internet has become an open medicine cabinet, a help-yourself pill bazaar to make you feel good."
The ring delivered as many as 2.5 million doses of narcotics, amphetamines and steroids every month to "tens of thousands" of American customers and others abroad, the officials said. They said the group also sold lifestyle drugs such as Viagra, but traded mostly in DEA-controlled substances. Tandy said it was especially disturbing that a relative handful of people could illegally divert such large quantities of potentially dangerous drugs.
According to Tandy and other federal officials, the ring was based in Philadelphia and run primarily by two Temple University students from India -- one studying computers and the other probably medicine.
Officials identified one of the students as 26-year-old Akhil Bansal and said his father, Brij Bhusan Bansal, 51, a physician who runs a hospital in Agra, India, was the primary supplier of the drugs. They identified the second student as Atul Patil, 32. The father was arrested in India, and the two students, as well as a Queens, N.Y., couple who repackaged the drugs, were among 13 individuals arrested in the United States. Those arrested here face charges of illegal importing, money laundering and continuing criminal conspiracy similar to those typically filed against traditional heroin and cocaine smugglers and dealers.
The "Bansal operation" did not have its own Web site but supplied 200 sites run by others, officials said. Most of the drugs were smuggled into the United States from India as bulk shipments and were repackaged, initially in Philadelphia and later in Queens. Undercover surveillance showed that as many as 1,000 packages a day were sent from the Queens site using express package services, officials said.
Hundreds of Web sites advertise their ability to sell controlled drugs without a prescription or with only a short questionnaire designed to establish a doctor-patient relationship. John M. Taylor, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs at the Food and Drug Administration, said these online consultations are illegal under the laws of most states, and that selling a controlled drug without a prescription is illegal under federal law.
The FDA is analyzing some of the drugs seized to determine exactly what they contain and possibly where they come from. Narcotics dispensed without a prescription are generally advertised online as brand-name products, but most appear to be generic versions, officials said.
Tandy said the illegal use of prescription narcotics is as much a problem now as traditional drugs of abuse such as heroin and cocaine, and that "rogue pharmacy sites fuel the abuse of prescription drugs." She said that Vicodin in particular, a morphine-based painkiller, has become popular with high school students.
The drug bust involved at least seven federal agencies and followed an investigation that took more than a year. Computers with order and delivery records were seized, and Tandy said further arrests are expected.
The U.S. arrests took place in Fort Lauderdale and Sarasota, Fla., in Abilene and Tyler, Tex., in New York City and Rochester, N.Y., in Philadelphia and in Greenville, S.C. Authorities also made arrests in Australia, Costa Rica and India.