Online Pharmacies Routinely Sell Dangerous Drugs Without Prescriptions

Online pharmacies and telehealth companies have skyrocketed in popularity since COVID, you may have even been advertised their services on your Instagram feed. However, a recent BBC investigation showed many of these companies appear to just be selling prescription drugs.
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A BBC investigation revealed a plethora of online pharmacies in the U.K. appear to be selling medication without doctor approval. 

The BBC said they bought over 1,600 prescription-only pills from 20 online pharmacies without general practitioner approval or any scrutiny other than an online questionnaire. The names of the pharmacies were withheld for obvious reasons, but they managed to purchase anti-anxiety medications, painkillers and sleeping pills as easily as one might purchase a sandwich at Subway. 

This problem has been increasing in frequency for years but especially since certain restrictions for online prescribing were eased during the COVID-19 pandemic. This created what Thorrun Govind, a pharmacist, health lawyer and former chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society referred to as a “wild west” of online prescribing. 

“The current guidance basically tells pharmacies to be robust, but do that in your own way, and we know that under this current system, patients have died,” Govind said to BBC.

Of the 20 online pharmacies BBC attempted to purchase dangerous medications from:

  • Nine were selling a prescription-only anti-anxiety drug BBC chose not to name 
  • Three of those nine pharmacies sold that drug to BBC investigators based on their falsely-given answers to an online questionnaire without any further scrutiny
  • Nine pharmacies sold them prescription-only painkillers 
  • 14 pharmacies sold them prescription-only sleeping medication

The problem isn’t universal across the board for every online pharmacy. According to BBC, a select few of the pharmacies they investigated followed up with them and asked for medical records or contact information for a general practitioner. One of these pharmacies, however, went so far as to send follow-up marketing emails regarding an addictive painkiller telling the investigators they had “something fabulous” in their cart and to “buy before time runs out.”

Govind told BBC that pharmacies are able to get away with this because the language used to write these laws was written too vaguely. To be clear, she’s referring to laws in the U.K., but the same problem also exists in America too and abroad. The laws allow too much interpretation for the individual pharmacies to determine their own ways of verification, which has no doubt allowed unscrupulous pill peddlers to distribute dangerous medications without proper checks.

“This has led to such a variation, with some online pharmacies asking for checks like video consultations, while others seem to let you simply click on the drug you want and go forward to pay,” Govind told BBC. 

This has led to verifiable deaths in people who were able to abuse the online pharmacy system. Katie Corrigan, 38, from St Erth in Cornwall died after developing an addiction to prescription painkillers after she was prescribed them for neck pain. Her doctor opted to cut her off, but she was able to obtain the painkillers as well as an anti-anxiety medication from online pharmacies. Her parents told the BBC that stricter regulations are needed to prevent more deaths. 

“Katie needed help, she didn’t need more medication,” Katie’s mom, Christine Taylor, told BBC. 

Another woman who chose to remain anonymous told BBC she was able to purchase a weight loss drug intended for people about twice her actual weight without any difficulty. 

“After taking it for a few days, I felt really bad – I couldn’t eat, I was exhausted and basically stopped functioning,” the woman told BBC. 

“If I’d had to send a picture, or any proof of my weight, I don’t think I would have been prescribed it.”

The problem is not limited to online pharmacies, either. Something the BBC investigation did not mention was the ease in which people are able to circumvent their country’s pharmaceutical laws by ordering whatever drug they seek from online marketplaces in countries with less regulation or oversight. I personally know at least a couple people who have ordered hundreds if not thousands of Xanax pills and painkillers from websites like IndiaMart. One of them was years before COVID happened too.

Screenshot from IndiaMart

It’s definitely sketchy, super illegal, and there’s no way to verify if the pills are real or pressed, so I would recommend avoiding this method like the plague and just getting what you need from a doctor, but if you’re savvy enough to be able to google what different brands of Xanax are called in other countries, and if you’re willing to roll the dice that U.S. Customs won’t look through your package, it’s as easy as shopping on Amazon. Whether you’re driving to Tijuana to buy Mexican Farmapram or ordering through middlemen in the Middle East, patients and dealers seem to find new and improved ways to avoid going through doctors for prescription medication almost daily.

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