WEST PALM BEACH — More customers are turning to the Internet to buy prescription pain pills following a crackdown on Florida's pill mills as the websites are boosted by major companies, and an abundance of offshore havens, according to an investigation by the Palm Beach Post.
It's against federal law to possess narcotics or to sell them online without such a prescription. But some websites offer still to sell without a prescription. Others provided a cursory written or oral "exam" with a physician, or sold access to other sites that directly sell drugs without a face-to-face doctor consultation.
Many of the sites examined by the Post relied on a U.S. Web support operation. Social media including Facebook and Twitter are used to hawk drugs, and a simple Google search can lead buyers to rogue pharmacies.
Some experts predict more will turn to Internet sites as addicts scramble for other sources of such popular narcotics like oxycodone in the wake of shuttered pill mills around the state. Prescription drug overdoses caused more deaths than traffic accidents in Florida last year.
"Crack down on pill mills, and people will go to the `Net because it's an easy source — and they deliver to your front door," said Dr. Bryan Liang, vice president of Partnership for Safe Medicines, an advocacy group.
That crackdown has also led some pill mills' owners to switch to Internet sales.
"We have actually seen evidence that pain clinics are also doing enormous Internet business behind the counter," said Alina Halloran, a vice president with OpSec Security, an anticounterfeiting company whose clients include pharmaceutical firms.
Google recently agreed to pay $500 million to settle charges that it advertised online Canadian pharmacies targeting consumers in the United States. But the self-imposed ban on advertising by rogue pharmacies is separate from search engine results.
A quick search for the painkiller Vicodin on Google, pulls up lists of online pharmacy sites offering the drug without a prescription.
"I found 10 sites in 10 minutes," said Sean Ryan, an addiction specialist at West Palm Beach's Hanley Center. "Basically, you can buy anything online."
A Google spokeswoman said, "Search results are a reflection of the content of the Web." The search engine can remove content, but doesn't do so "except in narrow cases," such as child pornography.
Online searches can lead users to sites like Medsindia.com, which promises you can pick up 120 pills of Darvocet, a painkiller banned in the United States and Europe, for $238.80, without proof of a prescription.
Tijuana Pharmacy offers 10 tabs of OxyContin for $450. Foreign Drugstores Online advertises access to pharmacies selling morphine, 30 tabs for $100.
Don't be fooled by the names. The companies are not entirely offshore. Foreign Drugstores Online has an address traceable to a strip mall in Pasadena, Calif.
According to its website registration, Medsindia's contact person lists a Wyoming phone number. The company that maintains the website's online address is based in Virginia. Calls to the Wyoming number weren't answered.
Of 24 sites examined by The Post, 20 had either a U.S. link or Web support service provided by U.S. companies.
A 2008 federal law was supposed to have remedied the problem with online sale of narcotics without a prescription. The act has made it illegal to sell certain drugs online without a prescription obtained in a face-to-face consultation with a doctor.
The law doesn't make it illegal to buy narcotics online, though other laws make it illegal to either possess or attempt to possess them without a valid prescription. The law sets sales rules for pharmacies, including those overseas that sell to Americans.
Robert Hill, chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration's pharmaceutical investigations section, said last year the agency had essentially pushed rogue pharmacies off domestic soil.
But John Horton, founder of LegitScript, which monitors online pharmacies, said he's catalogued more than 1,000 rogue pharmacies.