The Dark Side of E-Commerce
While e-commerce has managed to make the world a smaller place, bring convenience and value to shoppers, and boost economic indicators into the stratosphere, it has also spawned a dark underbelly where drug abusers can purchase illegal substances with just a few clicks of the mouse.
Currently, online drug transactions are taking place in increasing numbers. While Internet pharmacies that operate in the U.S. and abroad invite users to purchase medications such as Viagra, Percocet, penicillin and codeine without a prescription, marijuana, cocaine, heroin and Rohypnol -- known as "the date-rape drug" -- are also easy to get through online chat rooms and message boards.
Pushers Are Bold on the Web
Setting up a drug deal can be as easy as entering an online chat room, according to Special Agent Scott Ando of the New Orleans Field Office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Ando told the E-Commerce Times that while there are no statistics to measure the extent of illicit drug trafficking on the Internet, the number of Web sites that flagrantly offer illegal wares is multiplying rapidly.
One popular site provides a list of companies that offer marijuana seeds for sale, while others deal "finished goods." In many cases, these sites post flimsy disclaimers that advise customers to check their local laws before making a purchase.
Importantly, Ando points out, the sale of seeds containing THC -- the main compound in marijuana -- is illegal in the United States.
Busted in California
The issue of medicinal marijuana has complicated matters in California, where Michael Aronov set up his Arizona Company Medical shop in 1996. Aronov's site was seen by law enforcement as an effort to hide behind the state's controversial law that allows residents who have valid prescriptions from California doctors to battle specified illnesses with the drug.
Aronov was indicted in a New Orleans federal court last February for selling marijuana to federal drug enforcement agents. According to Ando, Aronov's sales violated the law because marijuana was sold to patients around the United States.
Additionally, Aronov allegedly sold marijuana to patients with such non-qualifying "illnesses" as migraine headaches and toothaches.
While awaiting trial, Aronov is using the Arizona Company Medical site to defend his right to sell marijuana online, and to solicit donations to cover his legal expenses.
In an open letter to "doctors, patients, caregivers and concerned citizens," Aronov writes, "We are in need of money to fight for justice the American way."
If the price is right, prescription drugs can be ordered online from U.S. and foreign pharmacies -- with or without a valid Rx.
To demonstrate just how easy the process can be, Glamour magazine recently asked a reporter to purchase a range of drugs online. As it turned out, that reporter was able to obtain Xenical, Prozac, Ultram, penicillin, and injectable Xylocaine -- an anesthetic used by dentists and surgeons -- without ever leaving the office.
Importantly, a drug must be approved by the U.S. FDA before it can be transported into the United States, and both the FDA and U.S. Customs Web sites make it clear that importing drugs that are not on the FDA's approved list is a federal offense.
The U.S. Customs site warns, "Do not assume that medications which are legal in foreign countries are also approved for use in the United States."
President Clinton, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and the FDA have cracked down on illegal pharmacies in the United States, but reaching drug traffickers that operate outside of the U.S. is a growing problem. In 1998, U.S. Customs agents seized 2,145 packages of prescription drugs mailed to the U.S., and that number multiplied five-fold in 1999.
However, international enforcement efforts are starting to bear fruit. Just last week, the U.S. and Thai officials announced the arrests of twenty-two people in Thailand who illegally exported prescription drugs to the United States. Additionally, six people who purchased drugs from three Thai pharmacies were arrested in New York.
Catching Drug Traffickers
One potential stumbling block for international enforcement is the wide range of drug laws and prevailing attitudes. According to Ando, foreign governments are reluctant to intervene in cases where individuals conduct business that is legal or tolerated in their home countries but forbidden by American law.
For example, the E-Commerce Times found a Web site originating in Amsterdam -- where the sale of marijuana is tolerated -- openly selling joints priced at $15 (US$) to customers around the world.
According to some experts, a global solution will require not only increased cooperation among law enforcement agencies but also the development of new methods for catching criminals. Ando said that when drugs are purchased online from dealers operating abroad, it is hoped that Customs or Postal inspectors will be able to intercept them before they reach their U.S. destinations.
International cooperation, as demonstrated by the U.S.-Thailand drug bust earlier this week, is seen as crucial.