The US Department of Justice charged five men from different states last month with participating in a $12 million drug trafficking scheme, selling prescription drugs and steroids manufactured largely outside the United States. United.
But these men weren’t selling drugs on street corners or in the local gymnasium. They were doing it the 21st century way: on the Internet.
They are accused of dealing on two different web domains. The drugs they sold required the supervision of a licensed practitioner, but the sites did not require a prescription for purchase, according to the indictment.
Now seized by the federal government, the sites were accessible by a simple Google search.
“Right now you can Google Percocet or Xanax and more than likely half of those first-page search results would be an illegal pharmacy,” said John Hertig, professor of pharmacy practice at Butler University. According to Hertig, fake pharmaceutical websites like these two are not in the minority. Of the 35,000 online pharmacies, only 5% operate legally, according to the Association for Safe Online Pharmacies.
Fake pharmacies are not looking to get consumers a good deal. United to Safeguard America from Illegal Trade spokesman Matt Albence said the sites included those operated by drug cartels, some with ties to terrorism.
“They are not bound by any regulations or laws,” Albence said. “They don’t care or care about people who might suffer significantly from using their products.”
In 2017, 42% of consumers searched for prescription drugs online, according to research by Hertig. Three years later, in the midst of the pandemic, 78% of consumers were buying drugs online.
With the rise of medical e-commerce, there is a great need for education, not only for consumers but also for healthcare professionals, Hertig said. A study published in 2021 found that more than half of pharmacists could not confidently identify an illegal pharmaceutical site. The SAGE Publications study also found that 75% of pharmacists did not feel confident directing patients to available resources to find safe online pharmacies.
Fake pharmaceutical sites counterfeit everything from Viagra to Adderall, and consumers have no idea if what they’re getting is safe, according to Hertig.
In 2021, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration seized enough fentanyl to provide a lethal dose to every American. Targeting high school and college-aged children, drug traffickers have also taken to social media platforms to sell synthetic recreational drugs. Marketed as MDMA or Xanax, these drugs end up being mixed with fentanyl, Albence said. Deaths linked to fentanyl-containing pills have been linked to Snapchat in 17 states, according to the Partnership for Safe Medicines.
With the internet, there’s no longer a need for a street drug dealer, said Kari Kammel of the Michigan State University Center for Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection.
“If you have someone based in China who assembles counterfeit Xanax and mixes it with fentanyl, they can sell directly to consumers in small packages,” Kammel said. “Customs does not pass them through large ocean freight shipments. You don’t have drug sniffing dogs looking for a little packet of envelope.
The recipient of a $1.75 million grant, University of California San Diego Professor Tim Mackey co-founded S-3 Research to fight drug traffickers on social media platforms and search engines , including Snapchat.
Drug dealers will use keywords to attract consumers, and it is S-3 Research’s job to flag these sites and accounts. With drug dealers constantly changing keywords, Mackey says the platforms need to work together.
“Drug sellers aren’t just on one platform, they’re on multiple platforms,” Mackey said. “If you remove them on one platform, it doesn’t really impact their ability to reach customers.”
Sharing data, like certain keywords and how those keywords change over time, is crucial, Mackey said. Cooperation between the private sector and law enforcement is essential, Albence said.
“Social media platforms must commit to participating and providing information to law enforcement so that they can take the necessary action against these illegal actors.
While fighting internet cartels, the southwestern border should not be forgotten, Absence said.
“The cartel creates vulnerabilities,” Albence said. They will send 150-200 people across the border to a desolate place, knowing that this will tie up all the resources of the Border Patrol Agents, allowing them to smuggle their contraband.
And now, with a simple Google search, a hashtag, drug cartels have direct access to consumers.
“I’ve spoken to a number of families where their children have died,” Hertig said. “They meant nothing wrong and they had no idea fentanyl was in the product. It was the day before an exam and they never left their room.
Elaine Mallon is a freelance writer living in Michigan and a former member of the National Journalism Center. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.