Federal Agencies Announce Increased Focus on Online Opioid Sales, Enforcement

February 15, 2018

By: Libby Baney and Matthew Rubin, Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting

The year started with a flurry of government attention on the opioid epidemic, and all signs point to that focus continuing for the foreseeable future. But unlike in years past, this year several federal agencies are offering promises and action plans to address the opioid epidemic from a new perspective: the internet.

United States Senate: A staff report issued on January 25, 2018 from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) highlights the need to address online drug sellers. The report found dozens of websites advertising and distributing illicit opioids such as fentanyl and other synthetic analogues. These products, often shipped into the United States through national post services rather than express consignment operators (such as FedEx, United Parcel Service, or DHL), have been linked to several deaths across the country. The report estimates that in the last two years, Chinese sellers have sold and distributed over $750 million worth of fentanyl and related analogues to American consumers. Through this research, the Senate PSI identified seven deaths associated with fentanyl sold online.

Top officials at the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also recognize the dangers of illegal online drug sellers.

US DOJ: US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last week the formation of a new task force to address the online sale of prescription and illicit opioids: the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement (J-CODE) team. The J-CODE team will double the number of Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, and DOJ agents focused on online drug sellers. This DOJ action follows July 2017 actions against illicit online marketplace AlphaBay and the launch of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit.

Announcing the DOJ’s further focus on internet drug sellers, Attorney General Sessions said, “you don’t have to go to a street corner to buy drugs. With a few clicks of a button, you can go online and have them shipped right to your door.” Regarding the J-CODE team, Sessions added, “it will help us make more arrests of those selling these deadly substances online as well as shut down the marketplaces that these drug dealers use — and ultimately help us reduce addiction and overdoses in this community and across the nation.”

US FDA: FDA announced last week that it has begun to target the sale of over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medications sold online noting the risks associated with exceeding the maximum daily dose, including cardiac arrhythmias or even death. Recently, individuals have purchased loperamide in bulk from online sellers to achieve an opioid-like euphoria or relieve withdrawal symptoms, given the synergistic mechanism of action on opioid receptors.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s remarks on these changes are an important acknowledgement of the role of internet sellers of medicines. “If you’re selling a drug with the potential for abuse and misuse through an online website, you’re no longer in the business of selling widgets, or books. You have a social contract to take voluntary steps to help address public health challenges,” said Dr Gottlieb.

With all this in just the first four weeks of the year, we are optimistic 2018 will be a significant year for patient safety and public health online.