The US Department of Justice last month charged five men from across the states with being part of a $12 million drug smuggling scheme that sold prescription drugs and steroids mostly made outside the United States.
But these men weren’t selling dope on street corners or at the local gym. They did it the 21st century way: on the internet.
They are accused of trading on two different web domains. The drugs they sold had to be supervised by a licensed physician, but the websites didn’t require prescriptions for purchase, the indictment said.
Now confiscated by the federal government, the pages were accessible via a simple Google search.
“Right now you could google Percocet or Xanax and more than half of those first-page search results would more than likely be an illegal pharmacy,” said John Hertig, professor of pharmaceutical practice at Butler University. According to Hertig, fake pharma websites like these two are not in the minority. According to the Association for Safe Online Pharmacies, only 5% of the 35,000 online pharmacies are legal.
Fake pharmacies are not trying to get consumers a good deal. Matt Albence, spokesman for United to Safeguard America from Illegal Trade, said the sites are also run by drug cartels, some with ties to terrorism.
“You’re not bound by any regulations or laws,” Albence said. “They don’t care about the people who could suffer drastically from using their products.”
According to a study conducted by Hertig, 42% of consumers searched online for prescription drugs in 2017. Three years later, amid the pandemic, 78% of consumers were buying medicines online.
With the rise in medical e-commerce, there is a great need for education, not only for consumers but also for healthcare professionals, Hertig said. A study published in 2021 found that more than half of pharmacists could not positively identify an illegal pharmaceutical website. The SAGE Publications study also found that 75% of pharmacists did not feel confident directing patients to available resources to find safe online pharmacies.
The fake pharmaceutical websites spoof everything from Viagra to Adderall, and consumers have no idea if what they’re getting is safe, according to Hertig.
In 2021, the US Drug Enforcement Administration seized enough fentanyl to give every American a lethal dose. Drug dealers targeting high schoolers and college-age kids have also turned to social media platforms to sell synthetic recreational drugs. Those drugs, marketed as MDMA or Xanax, end up laced with fentanyl, Albence said. Fentanyl pill-related deaths have been linked to Snapchat in 17 states, according to the Partnership for Safe Medicines.
With the internet, there’s no longer a need for street drug dealers, said Kari Kammel of Michigan State University’s Center for Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection.
“If you have someone in China who puts together fake Xanax and spikes it with fentanyl, they can sell it directly to consumers in small packages,” Kammel said. “Customs don’t get them through shipments in large sea freight. There are no drug sniffer dogs looking for a small envelope.”
University of California San Diego professor Tim Mackey, who was awarded a $1.75 million grant, co-founded S-3 Research to combat drug traffickers on social media platforms and search engines, including Snapchat .
Drug dealers use keywords to attract consumers, and it is S-3 Research’s job to label these sites and accounts. With drug dealers constantly changing keywords, Mackey says platforms need to work together.
“Drug sellers aren’t just on one platform, they’re on multiple platforms,” Mackey said. “If you shut them down on a platform, it doesn’t really impact their ability to reach customers.”
Sharing data like specific keywords and how those keywords change over time is crucial, Mackey said. Cooperation between the private sector and law enforcement is critical, Albence said.
“Social media platforms must commit to participating and providing information to law enforcement agencies so they can take necessary action against these illegal actors.
When fighting cartels on the Internet, the southwestern border should not be forgotten, Absence said.
“The cartel creates vulnerabilities,” Albence said. They will send 150 to 200 people across the border to a desolate location, knowing that this will take all the resources of border guards to give them an opportunity to smuggle their contraband.”
And now drug cartels have direct access to consumers with a simple Google search, a hashtag.
“I’ve spoken to a number of families whose children have died,” Hertig said. “They didn’t want to do anything wrong and had no idea there was fentanyl in the product. It was the night before an exam and they never made it out of their room.”
Elaine Mallon is a freelance writer based in Michigan and was a former contributor to the National Journalism Center. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.