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‘Rogue pharmacies’ plague region




CHARLESTON, West Virginia

Drug shipments from illegal online pharmacies were once so frequent in rural Appalachia that delivery companies had to add trucks to their southeastern U.S. routes.

Police have cracked down on such deliveries, many of which come from outside of the United States, but are still confronted by a booming global network of socalled rogue pharmacies operating online.

For people addicted to prescription medications like the painkiller hydrocodone – sold mostly as Lorcet, Lortab and 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 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.

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, said the Web sites approach doctors, often those who are seeking extra income. The doctors write prescriptions after they review online questionnaires filled out by customers. They are usually paid between $10 (euro7.41) and $25 (euro18.53) for each prescription.

The sites approach small pharmacies and persuade them to fill the prescription and ship the pharmaceuticals to the customers.

Prescription drugs can legally be ordered online, but rogue pharmacies ignore the rules that legitimate pharmacies follow, like requiring a doctor-patient relationship and getting a certification from state boards. The difference between legitimate and rogue pharmacies can be confusing.

In May, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse identified 581 Web sites that offer controlled prescription drugs, compared with 492 in 2004.

“These Web sites come and go very quickly,” said Susan Foster, vice president of policy research and analysis at the center. “They could be up one day and operating under a different URL the next day.”


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