Date: 03 March 2004

UN: Stop the illegal internet drug sellers

by Jo Best

Thriving spam black market driving addictions

Buy Xanax. Super-Viagra at cheap rates. Vicodin without a prescription. For most people, emails with subject lines such as these just make them hit delete. For some people, though, they're a way to buy drugs without going to a doctor. And the UN's drugs body has had enough.

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), part of the UN, published its annual report today, highlighting the rise in drug trafficking over the internet and calling for governments to put more effort into tackling the problem.

While most people regard emails from internet pharmacies as annoying spam, Hamid Ghodse of the INCB said this morning that the problem was "extremely serious". The drug sellers are exploiting a lucrative market including those who have taken pharmaceuticals in the past and are now addicted to them, those wanting to avoid getting their drugs from a registered doctor and those who want to take several types of drug at once.

The INCB says that it has incepted "significant quantities" of drugs in mail centres such as Thailand and India and believes that a lot of the pharmaceuticals illegally sold over the web come from Pakistan. However, the sheer volume of mail that goes through the world's sorting offices every day can make tracking down the culprits particularly difficult.

It's not happy with the marketing men either, saying that those advertising the products are understating the risks. For example, Ritalin, used for children with hyperactivity disorders and known to attract a high rate of abuse, was being advertised by some internet pharmacies as a "mild and harmless stimulant".

Recent research by Computing Which? confirmed that meeting safety standards isn't the first thing on the internet pharmacies' mind. Very few of the pharmacies that Computing Which? visited performed any medical checks, taking the data given by the buyer over the internet as genuine. In most cases, all that was needed to get the drugs was a credit card, with the pharmacies repudiating their responsibility in disclaimers.

According to mail-filtering firm Clearswift, the rise in drug-related spam during the past few months has been phenomenal. Pharmaceutical spam made up 18 per cent of all junk mail in September 2003, but in February this year, it made up 59 per cent.

Peter Simpson, manager of ThreatLab at Clearswift, said that the illegal pharmaceutical trade has been using legitimate pricing concerns to tempt users to buy from the internet. "The black marketers have seen a good opportunity for social engineering. The price differentials across various countries open up a lot of opportunities for them" by fooling users into thinking there's a genuine reason for the illegal pharmaceuticals to be sold at a reduced price.

The solution, according to the INCB, is to tighten up the "uneven and lax implementation" of laws surrounding internet pharmacies and encourage greater international co-operation between governments, the lack of which it says is preventing rogue pharmacies being brought to justice.

The varying laws and regulations that exist between countries are both a help and hindrance, the INCB says, with the drugs regularly travelling internationally and making it harder for the authorities to find their sources, while, on the other hand, ensuring that drug traffickers are facing harsher penalties if they violate international law, as well as the laws in their home countries.

The report says that a public misconception that buying pharmaceuticals such as antidepressants over the internet isn't as bad as buying illegal drugs on the street is hampering efforts to stop the internet trade in drugs. INCB would like to see mail administration, customs and excise and the law worldwide to work closer together and make sure that when the miscreants are caught, they receive "adequate penalties."

The online community is taking the threat of internet drug peddlers seriously. Last year search giant Google said it would put a stop to unlicensed drug dealers buying advertisements on its website, taking the lead from rivals Microsoft and Yahoo!.

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