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Tackling illicit online drug sales

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Tackling illicit online drug sales

Sid Dajani, a member of the Pharmaceutical Group of the EU, on internet drug dealing

The Internet is a growing market for the sale of illegal drugs, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has warned.

Although most illicit drugs are still purchased offline, online drug markets have emerged and are about to transform sales as a result of drivers linked to new technologies, globalisation, and market innovation. These online markets could in the near future disrupt drug dealing in the same way that eBay, Amazon and PayPal have revolutionised the retail experience, according the EMCDDA report.

Since the early 2000s, internet pharmacies have been the main online drug distributors for almost any kind of illegal drug, with no face-to-face contact between buyer and provider. As the illicit market is evolving, so should our efforts to eliminate it.

‘Hidden’ sales take place mostly through sites that are inaccessible using standard web browsers, with many strategies used to hide users’ identities and conceal the physical locations of servers. And social media and apps are now playing a more important part. For example, there is evidence that sales are taking place via small social network groups using drug slang.

A decade ago, some of the most popular products bought online were natural and herbal medicines, smoking cessation aids, and beauty and sexual performance enhancement products. More recently, the EMCDDA has seen a growing interest in enhancement drugs such as muscle-builders and diet pills.

Whether in open drug scenes or a dealer’s flat, low-level drug sales have historically been associated with real people and real places. While most dealing remains firmly rooted in the physical world, virtual marketplaces are now expanding the boundaries of drug supply, offering wider options to potential buyers. This development is particularly worrying, as users’ digital literacy increases, and the range of available drugs diversifies.

The safety features expected as part of a Delegated Regulation to the Falsified Medicines Directive, such as a unique identifier and anti-tampering device on every medicine pack, will be most welcome. These features will guarantee medicine authenticity for the benefit of patients and businesses, and will strengthen the security of the medicine supply chain.

The Falsified Medicines Directive aims not only to close any existing gaps or loopholes that allow falsified medicines to reach patients, but also to allow EU citizens to buy medicines online through verified sources and ensure that only high-quality ingredients are used for medicines sold in Europe. The Delegated Regulation will be applicable in 2019. 

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