DOJ and Partners Continue Fight Against Illegal Online Drug Sellers

August 30, 2018

By: Matthew Rubin, Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting

Over the past several months, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and many United States Attorneys have taken action against illegal online pharmacy websites, including those advertising and selling controlled substances (CS) and illicit narcotics. Between the recently announced Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement team and long-standing efforts of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force program, indictments continue.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the indictment of two Chinese nationals for their role in distributing counterfeit and potentially dangerous drugs, including fentanyl and 250 others, to consumers in 25 countries and 37 states. According to the indictment, the defendants manufactured and distributed hundreds of different synthetic opioid analogues and other dangerous products through numerous websites, catering to patients and caregivers in more than 35 different languages. Co-conspirators within the US were responsible for repackaging and redistributing the drugs once they entered the country, feigning legitimacy and hiding the products’ origin. Furthermore, the indictment also alleges the defendant agreed to produce adulterated cancer and anti-anxiety medications that would include dangerous synthetic drugs and non-drug substances. Unfortunately, there are two acetyl fentanyl-related deaths associated with drug products sold by these illegitimate actors.

While startling, the case highlighted above is not unique. Over the past several months, federal prosecutors have targeted individuals advertising and selling adulterated or counterfeit health care products and prescription drugs peddled by actors that place profits ahead of public health and patient safety. In July 2018, the US Attorneys for the Southern District of New York arrested two individuals for conspiracy to distribute CS and other synthetic and illicit narcotics over the internet. According to the indictment, the defendants conspired to distribute significant amounts of oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl analogues through a supposed online pharmacy. In Springfield, MO, federal prosecutors accepted a guilty plea from an individual for marketing misbranded dietary supplements found to contain sildenafil, an active pharmaceutical ingredient in some erectile dysfunction medications. He faces up to 23 years in federal prison without the opportunity for parole. In Euclid, OH, a 28-year-old individual pleaded guilty to the purchase and distribution of fentanyl and several analogues from China using cryptocurrencies. Three Canadian citizens were arraigned in July for the wholesale distribution of misbranded prescription drugs that lacked Food and Drug Administration approval due to the fact that they were made and labelled for use outside of the US – many of which were purchased from suppliers in Turkey and elsewhere and drop-shipped through the United Kingdom.

As evidenced by the handful of cases under direction by federal prosecutors, it is clear that the threat of illegal online drug sellers still persists on the “surface web.” This issue is only amplified further by the recently released statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that estimated a 9.5% increase in the total number of drug overdose deaths in 2017 from the previous year, topping 72,000. As evidenced by previous NABP Internet Drug Outlet Identification Program reports, the number of websites selling CS or other medications commonly adulterated with dangerous products is on the rise. This triumvirate of factors relating illegal online sellers and patient harms, especially overdose deaths due to synthetic narcotics, demonstrates the need for resources such as NABP’s .Pharmacy Verified Websites Program to ensure that consumers remain safe and well educated when purchasing prescription medications online.