Drug Enforcement Administration Makes Arrests Related to Allegedly Illegal Online Pharmacy Ring
Drug Enforcement Administration officials on Wednesday said that they have arrested more than 20 individuals in the United States and abroad connected with a "rogue" Internet pharmacy ring that allegedly sold millions of doses of controlled substances, steroids and amphetamines without prescriptions, the Washington Post reports. DEA officials said more than 200 Web sites received drugs from the pharmacy ring, which was based in Philadelphia and India (Kaufman, Washington Post, 4/21).
Officials say Brij Bhusan Bansal -- a physician in Agra, India -- was the alleged leader of the ring and obtained the pills from drug manufacturers in India then shipped them to the United States. Bansal's son, Akhil, a graduate student at Temple University, also was arrested and is accused of managing the operation in the United States. Akhil Bansal is accused of receiving orders for drugs from Web site operators in the United States, India, Canada, Australia and Costa Rica; having the pills repackaged and sorted; and submitting customer invoices to a shipping company that mailed the drugs to consumers, USA Today reports (Leinwand, USA Today, 4/21).
Federal authorities allege that the two "headed an organization that supplied vast quantities of controlled-substance pharmaceutical drugs and noncontrolled prescription drugs in the U.S. and elsewhere" (Ginsberg, Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/21). The indictments allege conspiracy to import and distribute controlled substances and money laundering, among other charges.
Officials also said the arrests were part of the "first international enforcement action against operators of online pharmacies," the Los Angeles Times reports (Schmitt, Los Angeles Times, 4/21). Other arrests were made in Florida, Texas, New York and South Carolina (Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/21).
The ring was uncovered in February 2004 when a supervisor at the Airborne Express terminal at the Philadelphia International Airport found courier envelopes filled with diazepam, the generic form of Valium, that were being shipped to a local business. Officials said the business had sent more than 4,300 packages in a 19-day period in that month (McDonough, AP/Hartford Courant, 4/21). The packages were received from Leroy Jones, an alias used by Richard Dabney, who was allegedly approached by Akhil Bansal to join the ring.
According to the indictment, the Bansals advertised on Internet bulletin boards and sent e-mails to the operators of pharmacy Web sites (Los Angeles Times, 4/21). The ring required only a customer's credit card number and address to process a request for medications, including the erectile dysfunction treatment Levitra, Effexor for depression, Ambien for sleep-related problems and the "club drug" anesthetic Ketamine (Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/21).
The Bansal operation had approximately 100,000 customers worldwide, with 60% to 70% in the United States. Officials said the ring since July 2003 illegally sold 2.5 million doses a month of prescription drugs, steroids and narcotics and amphetamines. Packages consumers received often contained no dosage or label information (Los Angeles Times, 4/21). In most cases, authorities said consumers paid above-market prices, which led authorities to believe the drugs were not being used for legitimate medical purposes.
Patrick Meehan, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, said that authorities had obtained the addresses and credit card numbers for people who bought the drugs and that federal officials could forward the information to local officials where the buyers' live, although federal authorities do not plan to bring federal charges against the buyers. Local officials then could charge buyers with obtaining or dispensing controlled medications without a license, according to Meehan (Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/21).
Officials also seized 5.8 million doses of drugs and bank accounts valued at about $6 million. Authorities said there was no indication that the drugs were counterfeit, but they currently are being evaluated.
DEA Administrator Karen Tandy said, "The Web sites we targeted today gave an illusion of safety and legitimacy, depicting seemingly legitimate pharmacists in white lab coats in sterile environments. But in reality, the drugs ... were smuggled from India and Europe and stashed in cars and homes and stuffed in plastic bags" (Los Angeles Times, 4/21). She added that abuse of prescription narcotics is as much a problem now as other illicit drug use, such as that of heroin and cocaine, and that "rogue pharmacy sites fuel the abuse of prescription drugs." Tandy said additional arrests are expected in the case (Washington Post, 4/21).
Meehan said, "There is no visit to a doctor, no pharmacist to vouch for the integrity of the medication and no prescription. All you need is a keyboard and a credit card" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/21).