The Burgeoning Online Industry of Prescription Narcotics
August 1, 2012
The Fresh Outlook
The growing concern over the increased abuse of prescription narcotics through online resources has resulted in calls for stringent regulation.
The online drugs industry has once again become embroiled in yet another legal scandal. This week a British mother-of-two, Sarah Catt, 35, appeared in court after she obtained a drug online that she self-administered to induce a miscarriage, terminating in the final stages of her pregnancy at 32 weeks. She was brought before Leeds Crown Court and pleaded guilty. The charge brought against her theoretically carries a maximum life-imprisonment under section 58 of the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act. She is to return to the Crown Court in September.
The case of Sarah Catt has put the online narcotics industry firmly back under the media spotlight following the fatal October 2010 tragedy of Matthew Davidson. The 26-year-old suffered from severe Asperger’s syndrome – a form of autism – and had battled depression and anxiety. Matthew died after overdosing on Tramadol, a prescription-only opiate designed to suppress the respiratory system; which he procured online through an Egyptian based company. After a recent inquest into his death in May 2012 his father, Dr Mike Davidson, heard how Matthew had engaged in self-harm and had tried to take his life on three previous occasions; however he was still able to acquire 60 Tramadol tablets with seemingly no checks undertaken into either his physical or mental wellbeing. Dr Davidson said that he was “hopeful” that health minister Edwin Poots would examine the issue but confessed that “unfortunately many of these sites are registered outside the UK so he might not have much influence.”
The escalating crisis of the availability of substances, both illicit and those available only by prescription, has recently been the subject of warning by the International Narcotics Control Board of the United Nations (INBC). In concluding its 2011 annual report the INBC warned of “relatively slow progress” between corresponding governments in outlawing illegal internet pharmacies. The warning came amid a call for much closer co-ordination with those involved in regulating the internet, with much of the focus aimed at internet registrars, credit companies and search engine operators.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will initiate legal action if they suspect that people plan to supply medication to others. The problem is that the MHRA only have the power to close down British-based sites which are in breach of the law. Only British sites however, not those abroad, fall under their jurisdiction.
The All Parliamentary Group on Drugs Misuse (APPGDM), a cross-party group consisting of MPs and Peers, launched an inquiry into the scale and nature of prescription and over-the-counter drugs misuse in July 2007.The then Chair of the APPGDM, Dr Brian Iddon MP said: “We know that thousands of people’s lives have been affected by the misuse of drugs found in the home or at the chemists. We are also increasingly concerned about the number of users buying medicines online, where they also face the very real risk of buying counterfeit products that may be dangerous.”
The Fresh Outlook spoke to Richard*, a student who had previously been involved in dealing narcotics and had been given a probationary order by the court, who said: “The dealing of illicit substances was much more frequent than prescription only drugs. Some of the dealers supplying cocaine and ecstasy, however, would also supply benzodiazepines, such as Temazepam and Diazepam, due to their sedative properties.” In reference to his own situation he stated: “I was addicted to ecstasy for some years and found through continued use that it was harder and harder to sleep. I started to take Temazepam to counter-act or ‘equal out’ the massive highs resulting from my ecstasy use.” Richard* also claimed: “The acquisition of prescription drugs seemed easily available for suppliers who purchased it online.”
John Chave, secretary general with the Pharmaceutical Group for the European Union, explained recently some of the problems that are faced in trying to prevent the sale of medicines online. He stated: “We have a situation now where one in seven people in the UK are buying medicines online.” Mr Chave has also commented that: “One in four GPs report having treated people for adverse drug reactions who bought medicines online.”
The crux of the problem stems from the fact that it is not, as of yet, illegal to purchase prescription medication online in the UK. The foundation of which is the current loophole in the Medicines Act 1968 which states that while many drugs can only be dispensed after consultation with a physician, there is no legal requirement for a face-to-face consultation. Therefore, quick-fix consultations with online net doctors ensure that any following transactions become legitimate within the scope of the act.
MHRA’s head of intelligence, Nimo Ahmed, explained that the loophole in the Medicines Act 1968 allows this practice to continue. Commenting following the recent closure of the site involved in the death of Matthew Davidson, he said: “We are now pursuing these websites and closing them down. While prescription-only medicine can only be obtained in the UK with a prescription, if you go on the internet you can access lots of controlled drugs easily.
“It needs to be stopped and we are doing our best to highlight to the public, the dangers involved.”
*Names have been changed.
By Ross Jones
[Image courtesy of FGMB]