Feel My Pain

A reporter goes after the online drug business and gets wasted

The pills came while I was out sick.

Sixty-one tablets of generic Vicodin, a prescription painkiller, came to the Houston Press office from a Florida pharmacy. It was my first successful buy in several weeks of investigating the online drug market. To see how easy it would be for prescription drugs to get into the wrong hands, I told a Costa Rican-based online referral service that I had back problems. That story -- meant to show how an addict or a minor could get these drugs -- came back to bite me in the ass. Not just a nibble. We're talking saber-toothed fucking tiger.

Wednesday morning, two agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration walked into the Houston Press office and confiscated my drugs.

Anabolic steroids are among the most prevalent on the Net.
Anabolic steroids are among the most prevalent on the Net.
Some online services make it easy to get the good stuff.
Some online services make it easy to get the good stuff.

For weeks, I had tried to explain to various DEA offices that I was buying drugs online. This was the first time anyone with the DEA had expressed interest.

For the last few years, print and broadcast journalists have run investigations on these kinds of sites. Some shed insight, some have ignored part of the reason they exist in the first place: Study after medical study has shown that, in the United States, chronic pain is undertreated. The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pain, the American Pain Institute and countless other medical organizations blame a large part of this on the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In January 2005 the National Association of Attorneys General sent an open letter to DEA Administrator Karen Tandy, requesting a visit to discuss the DEA's interest in doctors prescribing opiate-based painkillers. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott did not sign the letter.

"We hope that together we can find ways to prevent abuse and diversion without infringing on the legitimate practice of medicine," the letter stated. It was signed by 31 attorneys general.

The letter addressed concern that doctors were reluctant to adequately treat patients with chronic pain out of fear of DEA interference. The DEA has arrested dozens of doctors in the past five years for what they say was illegal dispensing of pain medication prescriptions.

This of course leaves legitimate chronic pain sufferers in the lurch. Often immobilized by pain, they feel demonized by law enforcement and abandoned by the health care industry.

By 1999 technology had come to the rescue. Online companies offered help: For a fee, they could hook up a prospective patient with a physician for a telephone consultation. If the doctor believed there was a legitimate complaint, he or she would forward a prescription to a contracting pharmacy, and the meds would be delivered overnight.

Federal and state authorities took interest. Convinced that most of these sites were pill mills approving scrips for any life-form in possession of a credit card, the DEA ran sting operations to investigate where the drugs came from.

However, the sites vary wildly in their standards, as I found out when I undertook my own investigation in May. I wanted to see if it was really as easy as the DEA claimed to get narcotics, and if customers were really getting what they paid for.

I started by calling the DEA's national press office. I wanted to tell them that I was investigating the online drug market and would be making buys. I encountered a brisk woman who simply could not be bothered. She informed me that the national DEA press office was for major media, not local outfits. She told me to contact the local office.

So I did. I called the local public information officer in Houston, and was told they would only respond to questions in writing. I wanted to chat about the whole thing first, but the DEA does not chat. So I started my research.

First things first: While the DEA is concerned about so-called rogue pharmacies that ship drugs directly to the customer, these businesses are in the minority.

Searching for pharmacies, I found www.offshore-pharma.com. Without faxing any records or talking to a doctor on the phone, I ordered generic Xanax for $28 on May 12. My money went to a bank in Panama; I was told my drugs were coming from Pakistan. I have yet to receive them.

However, I did receive an anabolic steroid, Sustanon, from another pharmacy. That cost $46 with shipping, and showed up in my post office box straight from Greece.

But rogue pharmacies are anomalies.

The industry is dominated by third-party referral services, which are split into records online pharmacies (ROPs) and no-records online pharmacies (NROP). As their labels indicate, the NROPs do not require customers to fax medical histories, but they still require a telephone consultation.

The ROPs outweigh their counterparts, and their standards, as questionable as they are, indicate that it's probably easier for a teenager to buy Vicodin at school than online. And OxyContin, Painkiller Public Enemy No. 1, is even harder to get. Few online services offer Oxy, and when they do, it isn't cheap.

Since ROPs require faxed medical records and copies of a driver's license and credit card, followed by a telephone consult, it is highly unlikely that the average teenager can buy Oxy online.

But Vicodin is like Skittles, if you can find someone sketchy enough to sell it. And believe you me, I found them. I wish I never had.

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