No Prescription? No Problem Online

The Associated Press
Thursday, August 23, 2007; 10:28 PM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Drug shipments from illegal online pharmacies were once so frequent in Appalachia that delivery companies had to add trucks to their routes.

Police have cracked down on such deliveries, but are still confronted by a booming global network of so-called rogue pharmacies operating online.

For people addicted to prescription medications like the painkiller hydrocodone _ sold mostly as Vicodin _ the days of "doctor shopping" are over, as long as they have Internet access. With the help of unscrupulous doctors and pharmacists, hundreds of Web sites dispense prescription narcotics to customers in exchange for nothing more than a credit card number.

Even as law enforcement agencies and state governments respond, rogue pharmacies continue to grow, filling hundreds of prescriptions a day, according to a recent study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, which reported the additional parcel delivery trucks in southeastern Kentucky, says about 95 percent of products sold by online pharmacies are controlled substances. By comparison, controlled substances amount to roughly 11 percent of the dosages dispensed by legitimate pharmacies.

The DEA found that 34 rogue pharmacies dispensed more than 98.5 million dosage units of hydrocodone products last year _ enough to give 410,000 patients a one-month supply.

Pharmacist Don Perdue has seen customers who run out of prescription refills turn to illegal online pharmacies.

"This is a major problem," said Perdue, chairman of the West Virginia House of Delegates' Health and Human Resources Committee, who wants to see federal law changed to make it easier to shut down illicit pharmacies.

Congress is considering legislation that would clarify federal law on Internet pharmacies and increase penalties for selling pharmaceuticals to minors.

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May, Joseph Rannazzisi, deputy assistant director of the DEA's Office of Diversion Control, described how rogue pharmacies commonly work.

The Web sites approach doctors, often those who are in debt or retired and are seeking extra income. The doctors write prescriptions after they review online questionnaires filled out by customers. They are usually paid between $10 and $25 for each prescription.

The sites approach small pharmacies and persuade them to fill the prescription and ship the pharmaceuticals to the customers. The Web sites target pharmacies struggling to make ends meet, and usually pay an additional fee on top of the cost of the medication.

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