Buying Drugs On The Internet: Ireland’s Latest Scandal

Illegial Drugs Buying Over The Internet Ireland’s Latest Scandal by Annette J Dunlea

Online pharmacies, or Internet pharmacies, are pharmacies that operate over the Internet. Pharmacies offering medication without requiring a prescription and doctor review or supervision are sometimes fraudulent and may supply counterfeit and ineffective and possibly dangerous medicines.The ease with which illegal drugs can be ordered over the internet has been highlighted by many Irish journalists recently.

According to a recent study 64,000 people- have purchased medicines on the internet, and one in ten said they would consider it. Pfizer estimates that Ireland is the sixth-biggest consumer of counterfeit drugs, with the black market worth about €86 million, according to the firm’s figures.This is despite a well-publicised 2008 study, which found that up to 60 per cent of the drugs bought online are fakes.But since only about a tenth of illegal substances are estimated to be picked up by Customs, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.According to the IMB, the drugs seized included erectile dysfunction pills, weight loss pills, antibiotics, hormones, steroids, mood-altering and anti-anxiety drugs, painkillers, cardiac medication, anti-cholesterol, amphetamines, insulin and – incredibly – cancer medication.Many people are also unaware it is against the law to purchase medicines online which are only available on prescription here.Clearly, the anonymity of the net is part of the attraction along with the promises of discounts.It may seem like the quicker and cheaper option in a country like Ireland where drug prices are high compared to countries like Spain.It makes it all the more difficult to warn people of the dangers they face buying these products online. It is the health danger, rather than the fact the purchase of prescribed medicines is illegal, that is the main message.

The internet has had a phenomenal impact on the trade in prescription drugs.This online warning also extends to products such as contact lenses and syringes. Customs & excise makes “hundred of small seizures every year” of illicit drugs sent by post but cannot differentiate between those that have been posted by individuals or ordered over the internet because there is rarely any correspondence in such packages, according to Revenue spokesman David Coleman.The most popular illicit drugs posted are small amounts of cannabis and cocaine. There have been 704 small seizures in letters this year and 486 seizures in packages, he continued.Estimating the amount of illicit drugs that get through undetected was impossible, but “I suspect we have a high detection rate”, Coleman added.”They were not to know it contained illegal ingredients which were outlawed. The Commission has asked the EU Member States to stop the free spread of the drug ‘mephedrone’ across Europe by submitting it to control measures. Mephedrone is already illegal in 15 EU countries. It has been linked to at least 37 deaths in the UK and Ireland alone.

The internet has revolutionised and sanitised the trade in illegal drugs, spawning a generation of accidental abusers, who are tempted into breaking the law by the ease of access, the privacy, the low prices – and the fact that, as long as you can pay, the net never says no.It’s not just drugs companies and pharmacists that stand to lose out if the drugs are purchased online or by mail order. Independent watchdogs have found everything from cement to rat poison, floor polish, chalk, rice flour and lead paint in these drugs. Also, the concentrations of real active ingredients can be low or so high as to be dangerous.The proliferation of counterfeit pharmaceutical drugs has become a global problem more serious than illegal drug trafficking.There have also been a number of documented deaths directly linked to drugs bought online. So the simple message is don’t take the risk.The reality is that what they are getting online or through mail order may not just be a dummy version of the drug but also a volatile mix of hazardous ingredients.When they arrive through the letterbox they can have the same labelling and colouring as the genuine medicine but in reality may just be a potentially life-threatening toxic mix.

The Irish Medicines Board was recently involved in a cross-country crackdown by various agencies which aimed to clamp down on these dodgy products.Internationally 267,855 packages were inspected and more than one million tablets seized including steroids, painkillers, drug medication, cancer drugs and insulin.It is cheap and easy it is to buy illegal abortion pills online.In Ireland, difficulties associated with trying to obtain abortions are driving women to buy abortifacient pills over the Internet, placing them at risk of not only carrying out a dangerous treatment without medical supervision but also of buying illegal and counterfeit medicine. Customs authorities seized 1,216 parcels of early abortifacients in 2009, the situation as “a real crisis in female healthcare.The Irish Medicines Board on becoming aware of the seizure of a package intended for a woman began to send the addressees letters seeking details of where they ordered it with the line “On receipt of your response the Irish Medicines Board will reassess your case. We look forward to your cooperation in this matter.”Clearly the implication of this letter is that there is a threat of criminal prosecution and sanction as a result of the purchase of the abortion drugs.The online drugs market has since continued to grow and is today estimated to be worth €28bn annually. Popular web-bought drugs include Viagra, Prozac, Valium, Ritalin andProvigil.”Taking drugs bought on the internet could lead all sorts of health problems,” says Darragh O’Loughlin, a Galway pharmacist, who has campaigned to raise awareness of the perils of purchasing pharmaceuticals on the web. “You really don’t know what you are buying.”Drugs sold over the internet are often fake. Some are essentially harmless .But others are dangerous because they will contain a small amount of active ingredient. To this can be added the risk of patient misdiagnosis, as in the case of the Sunderland woman who lost her sight.”You could be taking the right medicine, or you could not,” says O’Loughlin. “You might be taking the right strength or you might not. Even if you are lucky enough to make the correct diagnosis, there’s every chance the medicine might be counterfeit. You could think you are treating a condition when in fact you aren’t.”For example, you might buy something believing it is an allergy treatment. But it may contain steroids that suppress the immune system, so that the symptoms of the allergy appear go away. Of course, you are leaving yourself open to additional health issues.”

New evidence uncovered after police raids in five countries, including Spain and Ireland, all pointed to a vast Irish-organised drug cartel, stretching across the world. All week, the Spanish newspaper headlines have been about the ‘Irish mafia’.An estimated €800 million in dubious interests, including companies, properties and luxury cars across two continents, are being investigated. Among those in custody are a number of major Irish criminals now resident in Spain.That our streets are the targets for an organisation which had set up a variety of legal import businesses for the purpose of drug-running and a chain of businesses for money laundering shows the dimension of the drugs crisis.What can we do in the face of such determination and sophistication?In less than 30 years since the first signs of heroin importation here, Ireland has a defining drug crisis that in turn generates about 60 per cent of the country’s crime.

Amid questions about the quality of drugs, users have turned to head shops and their products, according to a study by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, an EU agency.‘‘The internet has emerged as a marketplace for psychoactive substances, providing retailers with the possibility of offering for sale alternatives to controlled drugs,” it said. It identified 115 websites that sell psychoactive substances in Europe.However, if her medicine is also controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Acts and Regulations it’s illegal for her to possess it unless she’s received it on a valid prescription, and a prescription that’s been written for the purpose of getting something by mail order is not considered to be legally valid. So she could be done for illegal possession, not specifically the fact she got it by mail order.

Precious little information is available on the internet drugs trade in Ireland, though anecdotally, doctors and pharmacists say it is almost certainly a growing problem. In a 2006 study, the Irish Patients’ Association estimated that, taking international statistics as a baseline, between 35 and 55pc of people using the internet were looking up medical information. Furthermore, it warned that users were ‘continually exposed to advertisements offering drugs and other medicinal products’, although only 12pc of online pharmacies were properly accredited.In the UK, where quantitative research has been conducted, some two million people are thought to buy drugs regularly over the internet, while Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority has seized more than €10m worth of illegal drugs , of which 50pc turned out to be fake.”God forbid someone should die in Ireland from taking these substances,” says Irish Patients’ Association chairman Stephen McMahon. “As we have said repeatedly, you can die from one click of your mouse.”The illicit trade in prescription medicine has the potential to undermine Ireland’s huge pharmaceutical industry, which is worth tens of billions to the economy.Six of the world’s top 10 selling drugs are produced in Ireland, including two of the most highly counterfeited: Lipitor and Viagra.Darragh O’Loughlin’s advice is that if something looks like a bargain, it almost certainly isn’t. “If you find them cheaper, it’s probably not kosher,” he says. “And bear in mind, when a criminal gang is prepared to sell fake drugs over the internet, you’ve got to ask yourself if you really feel comfortable handing them your credit card number.

“There are more parcel seizures of prescription drugs ordered over the internet but customs & excise detects a higher proportion of illicit drugs in letters.”All cases where illicit drugs are found are considered for prosecution” but “the vast bulk are small, insignificant user amounts. In those cases wewould seize more often than go the prosecution route, ” customs said.A spokesman for the Garda National Drugs Unit said he “wasn’t aware you could buy illegal drugs over the internet”. He said there were hundreds of drug seizures in the post each year but understood these were posted by “individuals or friends” from countries where drugs were cheaper or of a higher quality.Pat Carey said he is going to discuss with the gardai immediately a way of blocking these online pharmacy websites so people in Ireland cannot access them.

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