Surge in illegal sales of drugs as gangs exploit online market

The rise of social media and greater Internet access are behind a massive upsurge in illicit sales of drugs, according to the chief enforcement official at Britain’s medicines regulator.

Criminal gangs have become adept at using smartphone apps and social media to sell lifestyle drugs to a mass market of potential buyers at minimal risk and cost, said Alastair Jeffrey, head of enforcement at the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

This year, he said, the MHRA had seized 1.2 million doses of illegally supplied erectile dysfunction drugs, 3,83,000 slimming products and 3,31,000 doses of sleeping pills, tranquillisers and antidepressants — mostly originating from China and India. For the first time, the MHRA pursued YouTube accounts and removed 18,671 videos that directed viewers to websites offering illicit drugs.

Many gangs operate through websites that claim to be bona fide online pharmacies. They focus on medicines that people might be reluctant to discuss with their GP or pharmacist, such as Viagra and other erectile dysfunction drugs, as well as slimming pills and hair loss treatments. Sales of anabolic steroids for bodybuilders and cognitive enhancers, some of which have not been tested in humans, are also booming.

The profits from these far outweigh those to be made from narcotics such as cocaine, heroin and cannabis. The risks are lower, too, with jail sentences for handling unlicensed or fake medications a fraction of those doled out for dealing in class A substances.

Criminal groups use a number of different approaches to make money from prescription drugs. Fake pills can be made from scratch from various powders and sold. They can be laced with a small amount of the drug’s active ingredient to ensure they pass chemical tests. Other gangs obtain discarded out-of-date drugs and repackage them with fresh dates, or buy cheap generic drugs and resell them after replacing the labels and packaging to make them look like top-brand medicines. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014