In 2019, you can buy virtually anything online, including drugs. It’s easy to do, but is it safe
The internet has allowed people to connect and communicate with each other at unprecedented levels, and the recent boom in the Internet of Things has given humans astonishing levels of access to goods, services, and technologies. People can ask for help with nearly any topic, search for almost any item, and find others who share common interests, all with just a quick search on a search engine.
Unfortunately, greater access to any product or service means certain abuses. Prescription drugs can be purchased online, including opioids and benzodiazepines. Through legal channels, this has been a boon for those who cannot pick up prescriptions or leave their homes for many reasons, but it also means that illegal channels can sell fake drugs to anyone.
The “dark web” and many websites that are not based in the U.S. sell illegal drugs. Sometimes the drugs are not illegal in the country hosting the site, or an agent through the dark web can obtain these drugs illegally and ship them to your doorstep.
Illicit methods of purchasing any drug, from alcohol to heroin to Ritalin, break many state and federal laws. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has answers on legally purchasing prescription medications online. Buying any prescription medication without a doctor’s prescription breaks the law and can be incredibly dangerous.
If you take prescription medications, especially to treat chronic illnesses, you may want the convenience of shopping online. However, illicitly made drugs can have fillers like caffeine or powdered sugar, or additives like fentanyl, so they are not the drug you need or want. Instead, they can be hazardous to your health.
Fortunately, the FDA understands that more people want convenient access to the medications they need. They have provided a guide to understanding legal, safe online pharmacies and how to acquire prescription medications without breaking the law or putting yourself or your family at risk.
First, do not purchase drugs from websites that advertise themselves as Canadian pharmacies. These sites typically feature a Canadian flag in an obvious part of the intro page, but they may be operated by criminals or drug dealers anywhere in the world.
Other sites may claim to be based in countries like Norway or England, but they are not necessarily operated by countries that U.S. residents stereotypically believe to be safe.
Other signs of rogue online pharmacies include:
Medicines from illicit pharmacies that sell drugs online are very often not the medication you need, but something else. They are likely to:
These problems can all put you at physical risk. They can make you sick, fail to treat your condition or cause an overdose.
If you purchase from these online pharmacies, you are also at risk of being charged with a crime. Having illicit substances like cocaine shipped into the country or across state lines is a federal crime, as is purchasing drugs without a prescription.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is clear that buying a controlled substance online is illegal. This includes purchasing:
Although there are many appealing aspects of clicking a button and purchasing medications online, the American Medical Association, along with various state boards of pharmacy and medicine, condemn the practice of cyber doctors due to risks.
A study conducted by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) covered 100 websites selling medications to people in the U.S. All 100 websites were found to be operating illegally. The study found that:
Further information reported by NABP found that of 11,242 internet drug outlets listed as not recommended, 2,591 were outside the U.S.; 1,570 (14 percent) were located in the U.S., and 7,033 sites (63 percent) did not report a location anywhere on their site. There were 6,270 sites, or 56 percent of those surveyed, which gave prescriptions to the user after a short questionnaire or online consultation without any face-to-face doctor-patient interaction.
About 17 percent of the sites did not have secure servers, which exposes the user to credit card or personal information theft. In addition, 86 percent, or 9,686 sites, were affiliated with internet drug outlets, cartels, or rogue drug networks.
With millions of people all over the world using all kinds of social media platforms, these methods of connecting are becoming hubs for illegal drug sales of all kinds — not just prescription drugs like opioids or benzodiazepines, but also marijuana, cocaine, hallucinogens, and heroin. NABP found, during a four-week study, simple keyword searches could easily yield posts that linked to rogue drug sites. Through Pinterest, for example, NABP found 66 posts that promoted the online sale of prescription medications, and 38 percent of these posts provided links directing viewers to the sites.
A Global Drug Survey report released in May 2018 found that more people than ever are purchasing illicit drugs of all kinds online, primarily using the dark web. In an anonymous survey, the report found that about 10 percent of respondents said they used darknet markets — which are accessed with browsers that mask the user’s internet protocol (IP) address — at least once in the past year to purchase drugs.
Finland reported that 45 percent of their users purchased drugs online, which was the highest global percentage; however, the U.S. reported that 17 percent of drug purchases occurred online, which placed the country third in the world.
The dark web has been a significant player in illegal transactions since its launch in 2011 with Silk Road, which supplied drugs, sexual services, and weapons, among many other illegal activities. Many people who use the dark web to purchase drugs report that it is similar to ordering a pizza online. For example, 30 percent of people who abused cocaine reported ordering the drug and received it from a supplier within 30 minutes; for pizza, this rapid response rate was only 16 percent.
People who buy drugs illegally online report that it is safer than buying them in person. Increased police surveillance, better technology that improves law enforcement surveillance operations, and lower risk of physical harm from a drug dealer or stranger have all made online drug sales appealing for many who abuse illicit substances.
Another study, published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, found that people purchasing drugs illegally online faced significantly lower personal safety threats and actual physical violence compared to those buying drugs from peers, dealers, or strangers.
However, that survey also found that people purchasing drugs online faced unique problems. In addition to not getting the drug they expected to get, having trouble dosing the substance due to fillers or harmful additives, and other substance issues, people buying drugs online also experienced:
Those purchasing substances over the internet, especially illicit drugs through the dark web, may face less physical or sexual assault from a dealer or stranger, but they face a greater risk of having their money and identity stolen and about the same risk of getting the wrong drug.
If you have a prescription from a doctor and want to safely purchase your medication online, the FDA offers these tips to confirm that the online pharmacy is legitimate:
The FDA runs a site called BeSafeRx, which helps you, as a consumer, keep up to date on information regarding online pharmacies. You can also use the website Safe.Pharmacy to ensure you use legal medication websites.
There is no way to purchase drugs legally through the dark web. The entire purpose of this separate group of sites is to sell things that are otherwise illegal and ship them to you in minutes or days from anywhere in the world.
There are no guarantees of safety when you purchase from the dark web. If you abuse drugs purchased through these sites or through any illegal pharmacy site, you are at risk of overdose, death, and legal repercussions.
(May 13, 2014). A Simple Explanation of ‘The Internet of Things.’ Forbes. Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jacobmorgan/2014/05/13/simple-explanation-internet-things-that-anyone-can-understand/#2c2692df1d09
(January 25, 2018). How to Buy Medicines Safely from an Online Pharmacy. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm048396.htm
Report Suspected Unlawful Sales of Pharmaceutical Drugs on the Internet. U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Diversion Control Division. Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/consumer_alert.htm
(February 9, 2018). How Fraudulent Online Drug Sellers are Making the Opioid Epidemic Worse. National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). Retrieved March 2019 from from https://nabp.pharmacy/fraudulent-online-drug-sellers-making-opioid-epidemic-worse/
(February 2018). Internet Drug Outlet Identification Program, Progress Report for State and Federal Regulators. National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). Retrieved March 2019 from https://nabp.pharmacy/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Internet-Drug-Report-Feb-2018.pdf
(October 1, 2018). Social Media Sites: The New Wild West for Illegal Online Pharmacies. National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). Retrieved March 2019 from https://nabp.pharmacy/social-media-sites-the-new-wild-west-for-illegal-online-pharmacies/
(May 9, 2018). New Report Shows More People Buying Illegal Drugs Online. Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.occrp.org/en/27-ccwatch/cc-watch-briefs/8055-new-report-shows-more-people-buying-illegal-drugs-online
(March 6, 2018). Study: The Dark Web is the Safest Place to Buy Illegal Drugs. Tech.co. Retrieved March 2019 from https://tech.co/news/dark-web-safest-buy-illegal-drugs-2018-03
(October 30, 2018). BeSafeRx: Know Your Online Pharmacy. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Retrieved March 2019 from https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/BuyingMedicinesOvertheInternet/BeSafeRxKnowYourOnlinePharmacy/default.htm