Senate Drug Caucus Takes on Illicit Fentanyl Sold Online

October 25, 2018

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

On Tuesday, October 2, the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control (“Drug Caucus”) convened a multi-panel hearing focused on the importation of fentanyl and other synthetic narcotics into the United States via the internet. Witnesses included officials from Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of State (DOS), and other key administrative agency representatives.

The prevalence and availability of fentanyl, its analogues, and other synthetic narcotics continues to fuel the opioid epidemic, causing an estimated 29,400 overdose deaths within the US in 2017 alone. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, this represents a 22-fold increase in synthetic opioid overdose deaths between 2002 and 2017 and jumping drastically, nearly 600%, between 2014 and 2016 and exceeding the number of overdose deaths attributed to prescription opioids or heroin.

Remarks from Senate Judiciary Committee and Drug Caucus Chairman Chuck Grassley emphasize the seriousness of the issue:

The new economic model for these drug traffickers poses a unique problem never seen before: massive drug rings have been replaced by the sole proprietor. A single individual with a computer, PO Box, and a pill press can order fentanyl directly from China to his or her home. For the cost of a few thousand dollars of raw product, the sole proprietor can turn that raw fentanyl into thousands of pills worth literally millions of dollars on the street.

FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations Senior Operations Manager Dan Burke and Department of Homeland Security’s Matthew Allen elaborated on the scope of the problem and need for action. In his testimony, Mr Burke highlighted the ongoing, collaborative efforts among FDA, DEA, DHS, and others to combat the illegal sale of opioids online. Mr Burke stressed the agency’s recent indictments against illegal actors for distributing counterfeit drugs tainted with controlled substances and the efforts currently underway to help address this public health threat, including FDA’s June 2018 Online Opioid Summit and the agency’s continued participation in Operation Pangea. Mr Burke noted that in 2017 FDA arrested 44 individuals and convicted 31 for their role in illegal online drug sales, totaling $5.8 million in fines and the seizure of 4,229 domain names and materials and products with an estimated value of over $33 million.

Mr Burke also called attention to the importance of transparent, public WHOIS domain name registration data, noting that “we need to rely on cooperation, not only with our international partners such as China, but also with internet stakeholders, to find workable solutions to effectively combat illegal internet operations dealing drugs.” These remarks align with the efforts underway at NABP to promote transparency and safety within search engines, social media sites, and e-commerce platforms and further validates the organization’s participation in the Coalition for a Secure and Transparent Internet.

While the Department of Justice has utilized its existing authority to temporarily place all fentanyl analogues as Schedule I substances, there remains a significant amount of work to be accomplished in an effort to combat illegal online drug sellers and reduce the access to and availability of counterfeit drugs, illicit narcotics, and other potentially deadly substances advertised and sold on the internet. A resource such as NABP’s .Pharmacy Verified Websites Program serves as one tool for consumers to leverage in ensuring the websites they visit have been thoroughly vetted and approved and are not one of the estimated 160,000 chemical companies operating in China (some of which have been found to be acting out of compliance with all relevant laws and health care practice standards).