Throughout my long career in law enforcement, I've witnessed the damage drug use can inflict on communities. This leaves me deeply concerned about new congressional proposals to allow the importation of prescription medicines into the United States.
Counterfeit and illegal medicines already kill Americans by the hundreds each year. Existing penalties are not enough to stop them, and that's even before we open the door to importation. The existing problem of counterfeits laced with substances like fentanyl (a powerful and widely abused synthetic opioid) could be scaled up one hundred-fold if we let down our guard. We are in the grip of our most severe drug epidemic since crack cocaine swept cities across America in the 1980s. Allowing medicines to flow unregulated into our country is a recipe for disaster that every public official must work to avert.
It's true that prescription opioids have legitimate medical uses, primarily for those with severe pain that cannot be treated adequately with non-opioid medicines. However, we've also seen a disturbing increase in the abuse of pain medications. These abuses have contributed to total overdoses more than doubling since 2002 and opioid-related deaths quadrupling since 1999. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control determined that about 2 million Americans — nearly 1 percent of all adults — were dependent on prescription opioids and heroin.
While medications purchased from legitimate U.S.-based pharmacies are safe, huge quantities of opioids consumed and abused in the United States are procured illegally and produced illicitly, often in other countries and in violation of U.S. law. A large portion of the increase in deaths resulted from illegally manufactured drugs coming from far corners of the globe: the Drug Enforcement Administration's 2016 Threat Assessment Summary identifies major sources of opioids coming in from Mexico and Asia as well as major drug smuggling gangs from Columbia and the Dominican Republic.
More than 1,000 people end up in American emergency rooms every day because of opioid overdoses and a large percentage of these hospital visits stem from illicitly produced drugs. Cutting off these black-market opioids is vital both because they make up a very large percentage of drugs sold on the streets and because they threaten to hurt people who really do need pain relief.
Rather than cracking down on criminal enterprises selling these substances, some members of Congress are happy to allow personal and commercial importation of medications from pharmacies and middlemen outside the United States.
In short, many of these pharmacies are outright scams. One 2016 study by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy found almost 10,823 bogus online pharmacies composing 95.8 percent of the websites they studied. While most Americans will probably buy from websites claiming to operate in well-regulated countries like Canada and the United Kingdom, the drugs these illicit websites sell often come from another country and may be counterfeit or adulterated. Unsurprisingly, while it's illegal to purchase controlled substances like opioids online, there is no way to police all the websites, many of which maintain little more than a post office box (if that) in places where they claim to conduct business and instead operate from less-developed countries.
There's simply no way U.S. agencies could ever regulate drugs that are outside the FDA's purview. While importation of opioids will likely still be illegal, the products non-U.S. pharmacies sell may be little more than sugar pills or they could be poisonous substances; there's simply no way to know and allowing their sale is sure to accelerate an already severe opioid crisis on America's streets.
Put more starkly, people could die in large numbers if we allow unregulated opioids into the country.
It's simply not worth the risk.
Charlie Cichon, a former law enforcement professional, is executive director of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators (NADDI).
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