The unregulated sale of controlled drugs through online pharmacies is a growing trend in the United States. In a society heavily influenced by the sultry lure of the prescription medications that are currently used to treat a variety of biological and behavioral problems, it comes as no surprise that eventually many of our medical needs would be met by online pharmaceutical retailers. There are many benefits to this type of drug distribution. The disabled or homebound population can have their medications conveniently delivered to their homes, shoppers enjoy a certain level of discretion and anonymity, and the selection of products is vast. Item information can be easily researched and compared through the use of websites, and computers can quickly catch potentially dangerous prescription errors. However, despite the seeming benefits of this online trade, there are many significant drawbacks also associated with the sale of online prescription drugs.
In a study released last Wednesday July 9th, by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, under the leadership of Joseph Califano, it was found that most websites selling prescription opioids, stimulants, and depressants require no legitimate prescription to do so. This rise in illegitimate drug activity has also been linked to the growing abuse of prescription drugs especially amongst college students. This year alone there are 365 sites devoted to selling controlled medications by mail. Controlled drugs commonly purchased without a prescription included Oxycontin, methadone, Vicodin, Xanax, and Valium.
According to a 2005 study completed by Christopher Littlejohn and his associates, online merchants can be categorized into four basic types–“legitimate,” “subscription,” “lifestyle” and “no-prescription.” Legitimate pharmacies operate similarly to traditional pharmacies. Customers must have a prescription from a licensed medical practitioner, and in general these websites do not offer the types of controlled prescription drugs that are most commonly obtained illegally and abused. Users of subscription pharmacies are granted access to a full range of drugs without a prescription once they sign up for a program and pay a membership fee. These subscription websites are furtively maintained in hard-to-regulate areas of the world like Mexico and Asia. Lifestyle pharmacies ask customers to fill out a medical questionnaire in lieu of a prescription. They commonly provide more elective or luxury drugs that treat conditions such as alopecia, obesity, and impotence. No-Prescription pharmacies are just that. These are sites that are willing to mail controlled drugs to online customers without a prescription. Littlejohn’s study also contended that the people who most commonly ordered drugs illegally from these websites were literate, credit card owning individuals with internet access. These three factors also lead to the inference that the abusers of online pharmacies are of a relatively high socioeconomic status.
There are many distressing consequences associated with the sale of prescription drugs online. Unlike conventional pharmacies, there is little to no consumer protection over the internet. Products can be advertised with false claims and the sale of unapproved trial drugs goes unchecked.
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The administrators of illegal websites often remain anonymous and can quickly disable and create new sites that make it difficult for any regulatory agency to keep track of their activities. Operations are also commonly run outside of the U.S. making law enforcement officials scramble to put together international cooperation efforts.