WASHINGTON -- The sale of illegal drugs over the Internet is now so widespread that government agencies say they can't stop it without more resources, notably funding.
"The system we have in place has been overrun by the volume of illegal Internet drug sales," says Richard Stana, director of the homeland security and justice team in the General Accounting Office, which is Congress's investigative arm. He was one of a handful of representatives of federal agencies who gave a bleak status report to a Senate committee recently.
Representatives of regulatory agencies, Internet search firms, credit card companies, and shipping companies all said they needed more authority and better collaboration to tackle the online drug trade. They met with the Senate's Permanent Committee on Investigations.
While many legitimate online pharmacies exist, a great many others are willing to sell and ship potentially dangerous drugs, such as narcotics, without a physician's exam or an actual prescription, the experts say.
"It is all too easy," said committee chairman Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minnesota). "Go online to your favorite search engine and type in 'purchase Vicodin.' Double-click on the Web site, and you can purchase your Vicodin or the generic equivalent...no prescription necessary -- all you need is an online consultation and your order will be FedExed to you."
This is true, although sites may set up a few formalities for purchasers. One site offered a phone consultation with one of the site's contracted physicians and 60 tablets of the narcotic Vicodin for $199, with FedEx overnight shipping charges of $36.
The "rogue" pharmacy sites have flourished since they began appearing in the late 90s. A new study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University identified 495 Web sites advertising controlled prescription drugs during a one-week analysis. Of those, 157 sold highly addictive narcotic drugs such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Darvon. Only 6 percent of the sites required a prescription.
Operators of the pharmacy sites capitalize on the relatively unregulated and borderless nature of cyberspace. Many of the sites originate overseas, operating almost completely outside the purview of the Food and Drug Administration. That also raises concerns about counterfeited or contaminated drugs entering the United States.
The FDA's associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, John Taylor, says his agency is "doing its best to use its limited international authorities" to stop the increasing flow of illegal drugs into the country, but the task is daunting.
"Each day thousands of individual packages containing prescription drugs are imported illegally into the U.S. simply because the sheer volume has grown to exceed the capability of the FDA field personnel to properly process it," Taylor says.
Karen Tandy of the Drug Enforcement Administration says her agency needs a longer law jurisdictional reach and more people and technology to pursue rogue pharmacy sites around the globe.
"We need to be able to...go directly to the source of the illegal drugs and shut those sites down," Tandy says. The DEA received $6.3 million in the current fiscal year to fight illegal online pharmacy sites.
Since 1999, the FDA, DEA, and Customs have increasingly worked together to intercept parcels containing illegal prescription drugs. For example, the FDA and Customs organized two "blitz" operations last year in which they intercepted thousands of illegal drug parcels during three-day periods at some of the largest mail processing centers in the country. Many of the illegal parcels came from overseas.
The FDA also routinely works with the DEA to find and punish site operators. The DEA has further-reaching authority to prosecute criminals overseas, but still must rely heavily on foreign law enforcement and ISPs to do so.
The private sector is also taking part. Yahoo and Google say they accept advertising only from online pharmacies that have been accredited by a third-party verification system called SquareTrade. Federal Express, United Parcel Service, and Visa routinely assist the DEA in investigating and prosecuting rogue online pharmacies, law enforcement officials say.
But cooperation from the private sector is not enough, according to participants in the recent Senate hearing.
Coleman seemed exasperated with witnesses' reports that little significant progress has been made since the issue was first brought to the attention of Congress in 1999, characterizing the government's efforts since that time as "sand castles against the tide."
In May, Coleman and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) introduced Bill S.2464, which would prohibit sites from selling prescription drugs to consumers who were provided a prescription based only on an online questionnaire.
Strong support for the bill exists in Congress, a Feinstein spokesperson says. Feinstein is hopeful that S.2464 will pass the Senate without amendment, which often happens as the body hastens its work as the end of the term approaches.