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U.S. Stymied in Online Drug War

By Paul A. Greenberg
May 26, 2000 12:00 AM PT

A U.S. Congressional hearing Thursday revealed that government officials are growing increasingly frustrated by jurisdictional problems in the battle against illegal drug sales online, and have made little concrete progress in the effort.

U.S. Stymied in Online Drug War

William Hubbard, a senior Food and Drug Administration (FDA) associate commissioner, said that criminal operations involving Web sites that sell illegal drugs are being prosecuted in increasing numbers, but some members of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight appeared to be unconvinced.

"I believe that the noose is slowly tightening around the neck of these domestic sites," Hubbard said, "but the question on foreign sites is what can we do about them?"

Representative Fred Upton (R-Michigan) replied, "Unfortunately, the federal government has not been as effective in dealing with this issue. Little has changed in the last year."

House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley (R-Virginia) pointed out that none of the arrests or convictions the FDA cited involved prescription drug sales.

Justice Department Joins Fray

Ethan Posner, deputy associate attorney general, proposed legislation that would allow the Department of Justice (DOJ) to block financial or credit card transactions at Web sites that deal in illegal prescription drugs.

"Such an amendment [to existing law] would provide the department with an important weapon to combat the harms posed by offshore online pharmacies," Posner said.

However, foreign companies do not fall under the jurisdiction of such U.S. agencies as the FDA or the DOJ. In order to enforce a ban on illegal prescription drug sales from foreign sites, a more aggressive approach would have to be undertaken -- such as intensifying checks on packages coming into the country.

According to Betsy Durant, director of the U.S. Customs office of trade programs, that initiative would require a much larger budget for the Customs Service.

Fighting an Uphill Battle

President Clinton said last December that his administration has "zero tolerance for prescription drug Internet sites that ignore federal and state laws," but many observers report that such sites are thriving. In most cases, offenders disband or return to the Web under a different name after being exposed.

Also, efforts to prosecute violators are often hampered because many of the sites originate from places where the United States has no legal authority. At Thursday's hearing, Hubbard encouraged the passage of legislation to require licenses for online drugstores, so consumers would be able to choose legitimate sites from which to make their purchases.

Meanwhile, the online prescription business continues to thrive. Forrester Research predicts sales of drugs, vitamins and personal care products will skyrocket to $6.3 billion (US$) within five years, from $213 million last year.

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