Proposed legislation will fuel the U.S. opioid epidemic

Consumers need to think twice before clicking "purchase" on an internet pharmacy's site.

Interpol regulators and law enforcement agencies from around the world recently conducted a major sweep of online pharmacies. During the course of one week in mid-September, Interpol seized more than 25 million illicit and counterfeit medications — or $51 million worth — and made 400 arrests worldwide. It also shut down more than 3,500 illegal online pharmacies, including some selling pain pills laced with fentanyl. Illegal trafficking and abuse of this powerful opioid is killing tens of thousands of teenagers and adults in the United States each year.

This operation demonstrates how easily consumers can purchase millions of dangerous and deadly drugs through illegal online pharmacies.

At a time when federal regulators and law enforcement agencies have the nearly impossible daily task of detecting and intercepting hundreds of thousands of packages containing these dangerous counterfeit drugs, some members of Congress are proposing legislation that would allow Americans to purchase drugs from foreign, unregulated pharmacies.

Though it may seem well-intentioned, this proposed legislation ignores the realities of the public health crisis the nation faces today. If enacted, it will also inevitably increase the number of lives that will be lost.

When consumers access many of these pharmacies online, they believe that they are ordering drugs from reputable foreign pharmacies. But they aren't.

Consider the numerous entities that claim to be "Canadian" online pharmacies. Only a tiny percentage of these pharmacies are licensed in Canada.

In fact, 96 percent of online pharmacies operate illegally, selling drugs without a prescription or distributing counterfeits.

Many of these counterfeit medications fuel the U.S. opioid epidemic. Counterfeiters will turn a few thousand dollars into $10 million by buying fentanyl powder -- often purchased from Chinese labs -- and a pill press online.

They'll then make a drug and pass it off as legitimate versions of other non-fentanyl pain pills. Unsuspecting victims will then take the drug, overdose and die.

Should Congress's proposed importation legislation pass, there would be no regulatory mechanism to distinguish between legitimate and counterfeit imports. Consumers will have no idea if they are receiving a drug that is safe and effective or a counterfeit that could kill them.

One thing is certain: with a direct pipeline to American consumers, criminal organizations will tap into other, less regulated global drug markets to ramp up the size and scale of their illegal pharmacy operations.

Their goal? Pump as many drugs as they can into the United States.

These drugs won't be coming from vetted sources. Illegal online pharmacies source their drugs from countries such as China, which is the number one supplier of fentanyl to North America, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

There are other types of counterfeits being made overseas, too.

In 2014, for instance, Polish police arrested 14 suspects for manufacturing counterfeit Viagra and selling it online. Last year, officials charged a Belgium man for creating falsified U.S. labels for drugs manufactured in India. This spring, officials discovered a counterfeit cancer medication in Germany's supply chain.

The ban on foreign drug imports exists for good reason. Lifting it will make it harder for America to keep counterfeit and illicit drugs out and cost many Americans their lives.

Karavetsos, a partner with the global law firm DLA Piper, formerly served as the Director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations and Chief of the Narcotics Section and the Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of Florida.

Copyright © 2018, The Virginia Gazette