In January 2009, police officers found Vassilios Stassinos dead in his apartment in Washington, D.C., surrounded by more than 17,000 pills including Xanax, Vicodin, Ritalin, and Valium. Stassinos didn’t die from an overdose, however, further investigation found that he had apparently been working for an online pharmacy in Pakistan and distributing their drugs to customers in the U.S., according to ABC News.
“Rogue” Online Pharmacies, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration calls them, are illegal and allow online shoppers to obtain pharmaceuticals without a prescription. Often, pills are expired, improperly labeled, or counterfeits, and in rare cases they have been lethally contaminated. In 2006, a Canadian resident died after consuming prescription medication bought online that was contaminated with lead, titanium, and arsenic.
Many deaths caused by drugs purchased online go unnoticed, according to Libby Baney, executive director of the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies. Often, deaths are blamed on underlying causes such as cancer or high cholesterol and the pharmaceuticals go unquestioned, she said.
Congress has recently made efforts to stop these online pharmacies. In 2008, the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act was passed, named after an 18-year-old man who died from an overdose in 2001 after receiving pills for filling out a questionnaire online. There have also been notable crackdowns by police: in March, nine people were forced to forfeit nearly $100 million in profits connected to an illegal online pharmacy, and two men from Rhode Island were charged with repackaging drugs and selling them on the Internet in association with an Israeli online pharmacy.
“Piecing together rogue Internet pharmacy operations can be difficult because they may be composed of thousands of related websites, and operators take steps to disguise their identities,” according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Many online pharmacies are located outside of the United States, so while the FDA can alert foreign authorities to a report of an illegal pharmacy, that is the extent of their action, according to Carmen Catizone, executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.
Recently, the NABP was awarded the “.pharmacy” domain, which they hope to see used by all legal online pharmacies, according to Catizone. This would allow users to easily identify whether an online source of medication is legitimate and legal or not.