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Eliminate cyber trafficking of drugs warns the UN

Governments must do more to stem the flood of prescription-only drugs available online, that’s the warning from the UN's drugs agency, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB).

Helped by legal inconsistencies and the failure to enforce existing legislation, it has never been easier to buy drugs from illicit online pharmacies or via unscrupulous spam e-mails.

A snapshot survey of US websites found 150 that were advertising pharmaceutical drugs for sale without a prescription, these included analgesics, tranquillisers, hypnotic sedatives, Ritalin and even amphetamine-type stimulants.

A main reason for such sales, said the INCB report, was the "dangerously widespread perception" that the misuse of prescription drugs was not as harmful as the misuse of illegal drugs.

Internet pharmacies play a major role in the illicit supply of drugs, it added.

In the UK, a recent study by consumer magazine, Computing Which?, found that researchers posing as ordinary consumers, were freely able to buy mood-altering substances such as weight-loss drugs and anti-depressants - all prescription-only medicines - with little or no diagnosis or promise of follow-up care.

Few, if any, of the sites Computing Which? visited ran proper medical checks before dispensing the drugs.

And most relied on patients to monitor their own dosage.

Jessica Ross, editor of Computing Which? said: "The MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] should issue clear guidelines for best practice so that sites selling prescription-only medicines register customers, track repeat prescriptions and more importantly, monitor individuals once they start taking the drug.

"If these sites have nothing to hide, they should name the doctors and pharmacists used by them and work with the MHRA to put proper safeguards in place."

However, controlling Internet pharmacies is a complicated business, not least because these pharmacies are operating all over the world and can - and do - relocate their operations at short notice whenever they are threatened with legal action.

Also, the sheer volume of letters and parcels shipped on a daily basis makes it almost impossible for police to detect illegal shipments and track their origin.

Despite the difficulties, the INCB has called on Governments to do more to stamp out the trade.

In its annual report the INCB said: "Governments should ensure that illicit trafficking and the diversion of pharmaceutical products containing narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances are established as criminal offences. Such offences should be punishable by sanctions commensurate with their gravity."

There have been some successes. Last year, a restaurateur and her son were jailed in Florida for running an unlicensed Internet pharmacy.

Operating two websites from a bedroom in her suburban home, mother and son generated a massive $1.3 million in sales.

In particular, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) warns that the international online trade in controlled substances is targeted at vulnerable people, the consequences of which are often tragic.

Last year, the mother of a Durham University student called on the Government to do more to stop unscrupulous companies selling prescription drugs on the Internet after her son took his own life while suffering from depression after becoming addicted to a cocktail of drugs that he obtained online.

Speaking after his inquest mum, Mue Bracknell, said that Web sites selling prescription drugs on the Internet are "cynically manipulating vulnerable people who are desperate".

Sources: Computing Which?, Guardian Unlimited, The Register

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