- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The nature of America’s drug problem is changing. No longer is the problem characterized exclusively by the stereotypical street-corner drug dealer with a bindle of heroin or a baggie of marijuana. Now, prescription drugs — which can be lifesaving when used under a physician’s care — are being misused in record numbers. And the Internet — which promises expanded opportunity for legitimate e-commerce — is also home to a virtual street-corner drug dealer for many of our youth.

Prescription drug abuse is the nation’s second-largest drug abuse problem behind marijuana and is the sole category in which drug abuse is rising.

Prescription drugs, particularly controlled substances like hydrocodone, can be every bit as dangerous as so-called street drugs when not used under the care of a physician.

In response to this demand, thousands of rogue Internet pharmacy Web sites have cropped up to provide, for a premium price, these highly addictive controlled substances to people who would otherwise not be able to get them from a legitimate physician. These rogue Internet pharmacy Web sites exploit an ambiguity in the Controlled Substance Act, the 1970s-era law that governs the sale of drugs with some potential for abuse and addiction. These Web site operators created a sham process allowing customers to fill out a short online questionnaire that a doctor uses to justify a prescription for a controlled substance like hydrocodone. The doctor never sees the patient and never verifies the patient’s information.

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hear from one parent who learned about this problem the hard way. Francine Haight will explain that her son Ryan was a good kid, a high school senior with a 4.0 grade-point average, athletic, competitive and popular. On Feb. 12, 2001, just a few weeks after his 18th birthday, Ryan died from an overdose of hydrocodone that he had purchased over the Internet without a valid prescription. The doctor that prescribed the drug had never seen or examined Ryan before issuing the prescription and did not know that Ryan was only 17 when he ordered the drug online.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Jeff Sessions have introduced legislation to prevent other parents from experiencing the same horror as Francine Haight. The Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act, which will be considered today by the Senate Judiciary Committee, brings the law regulating the sale of controlled substances into the Internet age and is a vitally important tool in our nation’s anti-drug efforts. It should be sent to the full Senate for passage.

The Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act addresses the problem of rogue Internet pharmacies in three important ways: It closes the online questionnaire loophole by requiring that at least one in-person examination have occurred in order for a controlled substance prescription filled over the Internet to be considered valid; it creates a registration system for Internet pharmacies; and it increases penalties for trafficking controlled-substance prescription drugs. All three components are commonsense fixes that will protect Internet users from prescription drug traffickers without impeding legitimate medical practice.

Consumers should know that there are safe and legal Internet pharmacies.

These require that controlled substances only be prescribed for a legitimate medical purpose, and never dispense a controlled substance prescription solely on the basis of an online questionnaire. Surely most Americans — and in particular parents — would agree that before prescribing drugs with a significant potential for abuse and addiction, a physician should have met with a patient at least once. Mrs. Feinstein and Mr. Sessions have ensured that the bill takes into account legitimate issues surrounding telemedicine and the practice of covering practitioners. But in each case, a physician who is familiar with the patient can determine whether the medication is truly necessary, or if the person is possibly acquiring the prescription drug because of an addiction.

The registration requirement allows regulatory agencies to identify pharmacies that are operating over the Internet and ensures that only legitimate pharmacies will be registered. Currently, penalties for prescription drug trafficking are much lighter than penalties for trafficking street drugs, and consequently there is little to discourage white-collar prescription drug dealers from going into business on the Internet. Raising these penalties holds these drug dealers equally accountable.

Thanks to the combined efforts of parents, teachers, law enforcement, treatment specialists and other anti-drug advocates, drug abuse in every category other than prescription drugs is declining. Now, it is time for Congress to take the actions required to ensure legitimate access to prescription drugs while preventing rogue Internet pharmacy Web sites from profiting from the drug addiction of young people like Ryan Haight.

John Horton is a former associate deputy director in the White House Drug Policy Office (March 2002 to April 2007). Kristi Remington is a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department (June 2002 to February 2007).

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